Thursday, May 16, 2019

Collective advocacy must replace mother-led campaigns

By Louise Kinross

A decade of activism by British mothers of children with disabilities hasn’t produced positive change in the lives of disabled people, write two researchers in a fascinating article this month in Disability and Society. The authors—Katherine Runswick-Cole and Sara Ryan (photo above)—are disability studies scholars and parents to children with intellectual disability. “Despite the efforts of countless mothers of disabled children, and others, over the last 10 years, the outlook remains bleak,” they write. “We live in a world now where our children with learning disabilities will die on average 23 to 29 years before their peers (NHS England 2017), startling evidence of the limits of advocacy for, with and by learning disabled people.”

We interviewed Sara in 2015 about the preventable death of her son Connor Sparrowhawk, an 18-year-old with autism and seizures. In 2013, Connor drowned alone in a bath in a National Health Services treatment unit. The NHS trust that ran the unit initially attributed his death to natural causes, but his parents called for an independent investigation that found his death preventable. Last year, Southern Health in Britain was fined just over $1.8 million dollars for this preventable death.

Sara and Katherine, who are at the University of Oxford and the University of Sheffield respectively, argue that campaigns based on mother advocacy have failed for generations. Yet every new generation, not looking back, insists they’re pioneers in the cause. The authors suggest we need to move away from mother advocacy—which is undermined by a culture of mother blame, focuses on individual families vs. systemic problems, and pits mothers of young children with disabilities against mothers of adult children—to a new collective activism that brings all sorts of people together.

BLOOM: You note that many parents of children with disabilities believe that the general public just doesn’t understand the discrimination their kids face, and that if only they were made aware, changes would occur. But you don’t buy into that. You say you’ve been doing this work for 10 years and conditions in the U.K. for people with disabilities have only gotten worse.

Sara Ryan:
Yes. There was a good chunk of solid policy in the U.K. at the beginning of the 21st century that engaged with learning-disabled people as human beings who we need to value, and who have aspirations. That positive movement has come to nothing. Things have gone backwards.

Ten years ago, we thought we were pioneers in raising awareness and we’d sort everything out. We didn’t realize the generations of parents and mothers who had done the same things we were doing. We disempowered the people who came before us.

BLOOM: You point to something I’m very aware of—which is a split between young parents of kids with disabilities and older parents of adult children, who have been advocating for a long time. I know when my son was young, I didn’t want to hear about the experiences of adults with disabilities because I wanted to focus on his unlimited potential. I wanted to believe we had the capacity to make big changes.

Sara Ryan:
As young parents you’re totally fresh, and you think things won’t be as bad for your children.

BLOOM: In a way, you don’t want to hear about the real struggles of older parents.

Sara Ryan:
I understand that. You’re facing something unexpected and unfamiliar, and you have a lot to grapple with. But it’s really unhelpful in terms of social movements and change if the movement is inherently fragmented when people break off when their children go into adult services.

BLOOM: It’s so short-sighted, to turn our backs on the families who have done the hard work before us.

Sara Ryan:
It’s also sustained by big charities who almost 'groom' the younger parents to make them feel they’re pioneers in leading the way. These charities have been saying the same things for 40 years, and it’s not in their interest to say it hasn’t worked. They present their campaigns as something new for parents of young children, while erasing the work that’s been done in the past.

BLOOM: I guess promoting a campaign that focuses on young children—and the sense of possibility inherent in them—is more likely to be well received than one that focuses on the realities for adults.

Sara Ryan:
Young children are cute. But there’s a change happening with young mothers today. There’s one mother on Twitter who posts a photo of her young son with Down syndrome beside the facts about the early death he faces. She wants people to think about that, and it’s really powerful.

BLOOM: You talk about mother blame in your article—whether we’re blamed for our child’s disability, or blamed for not doing enough or the right therapy, or blamed because our children are costly. How does mother blame influence the efficacy of social justice campaigns by mothers?

Sara Ryan:
That’s an interesting question. In our original paper we were saying that mothering is an invisible endeavour, but by token of having a disabled child, your mothering becomes visible. You’re seen as a poor mother due to your child’s unruly behaviour.

When we began our campaign #JusticeforLB [LB stands for laughing boy, a name Sara used in her blog about Connor], there were attempts by the trust, the local authority and NHS England to blame me, or to cast me as an irrational mother, to diffuse the strength of our arguments. But what was unique about our campaign was that over time, the demand for answers became a collective endeavour by a diverse range of people. Most had never met us. That reduced the potency of the 'mother being the problem,' so our campaign was very effective.

BLOOM: You refer in your article to a new form of advocacy called unmothering. Can you explain?

Sara Ryan:
It’s about loosening that expectation that the child and mother bond is somehow essential, and allowing other people to step up and be involved in a campaign—to take part and speak and act. If the campaign is just about a mother, it’s an individual focus, which is necessarily weaker.

BLOOM: You write that unmothering doesn’t devalue mothering, but disrupts ‘the idea that the mother alone is responsible for raising children.’ How was the #JusticeforLB campaign an example of unmothering?

Sara Ryan:
It was the collective approach of it. We ran a campaign within the campaign called 107 days of action, to mark every day Connor had been in the unit before he died. We asked people to adopt a day to fundraise for our legal fees, or to raise awareness. We had a teenager who canoed 100 km to the House of Commons with a photo of Connor on her back. We had a Brownie pack in New Zealand that drew pictures of buses, which Connor loved. We had people who did lectures or sports events in Connor’s name. People adopted a day to do cake sales. These activities had nothing to do with mothers, and in most cases they were undertaken by people who didn’t know Connor or our family.

BLOOM: How did you get people who weren’t personally invested in your family to participate?

Sara Ryan:
I’d been writing a blog about Connor, and early on it was really funny stories about the hilarious things he did. By the time he died, so many people were reading the blog, which was anonymous at the time, that they felt they knew him. That made the impact of his death more powerful. He wasn’t a learning disabled person. He was a fully fleshed out member of our family, and he was very funny. The fact that he was a beautiful young man with funny stories was what took hold.

BLOOM: Yet you note that storytelling by mothers hasn’t traditionally produced results.

Sara Ryan:
I think stories are important, but I don’t think they make change. The Disabled Children’s Partnership recently launched a new campaign called #TheSecretLifeOfUs to raise awareness of the challenges faced by families. But the campaign is premised on the mistaken assumption that the lives of disabled children are hidden.

BLOOM: Yes, you note that children being excluded from school and bullied, and the isolation and poverty of families, has been well documented.

When Connor died, the NHS trust first blamed his death on him, saying he had died of natural causes. Then they shifted to criticizing you.

Sara Ryan:
A day after Connor died, a document called a briefing on the mother’s blog was produced and circulated, which suggested that I might be troublesome because I’d written that Connor had had an earlier seizure. Blame is completely at the heart of it. The biggest example was before Connor’s inquest, our solicitor read transcripts of evidence given by staff. They said things like ‘My relationship with Dr. Ryan: I was very scared of her. She was unusual.’

BLOOM: As opposed to staff testifying as to why it was that Connor ended up behind a closed door in a bath where he had a seizure?

Sara Ryan:
I had said to staff ‘Connor is having seizures.’ It kept coming up in the inquest that the defence for each of the staff members was that the mother was so difficult it was impossible to provide good care to Connor. When Connor was in the unit I wouldn’t have dared to be angry, for fear of retribution. We were so worried about Connor.

Read the annual reports of the British Learning Disabilities Mortality Review.