This headline about a supported living scheme for people with learning disability and challenging behaviour in a local newspaper recently drew my attention. Apparently a resident’s clothes were ripped causing injury to his/her neck and an inspection found that residents had little personal space. Having been involved both as a provider and occasionally an inspector of similar service facilities for adolescents who sometimes present with challenging behaviour I felt sympathy both for residents and for those who look after them. For when behaviour is challenging inadequate staffing and lack of personal space for residents sometimes causes and often exacerbates the situation.

People with learning disabilities have a much better quality of life than in the past. Social attitudes have become more accepting of their presence in the community and as a result they no longer have to spend their lives in large impersonal institutions. They are helped to live in their own homes and families receive greater support from statutory and voluntary bodies. Some children with learning disabilities may now be placed in mainstream education. Churches are less likely than in the past to discourage a person with a learning disability from attending worship or sharing in communion services. Some churches have ministry groups specifically for people with learning disabilities but too many churches still make little provision in their ministries in their local communities.

However although things are better, there is still room for improvement. People with learning disabilities still experience negative attitudes and discrimination. The confidential inquiry into the premature deaths of people with learning disability published recently found that people with learning disability are on average more likely to die 16 years before the general population because of delays investigating or treating their illnesses (that is they were preventable deaths). And as investigations into some residential facilities in both England and this province over the past two years continue to reveal, people with learning disabilities may still suffer harm in the places which are supposed to be providing care. As a society we too often expect that on those occasions when behaviour is problematic it will be managed with minimal training and resource. It is too easy to be critical of individuals who struggle to manage challenging behaviour. They and those they care for are too often out of sight and out of mind. Those caring for learning disabled people are too often under-resourced and inadequately trained – frequently due to inadequate funding either by the state or private providers.

Those who profess to follow Christ must continually be in the vanguard of efforts to improve life for the learning disabled and those who care for them. Volunteers can help a lot by acting as mentors. Charities like L’Arche, Prospects and (though not specifically Christian) Mencap and others have set the example of how to do it. Christians are to be agents for good in a world of disadvantage and darkness, preserving and incarnationally illuminating what is good and righteous. We are created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10) and this world and life, whether we like it or not, is all we have in which to show God’s loving commitment to humanity with all its imperfections, anxieties and hopes.

Matt 25: 45 “Truly I say to you: whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”.

Noel McCune
Chairperson, Contemporary Christianity and retired NHS Consultant Psychiatrist.