A couple of years ago, Simon Barnes wrote a moving piece in this magazine about how his son Eddie, who has Down’s syndrome, had changed his mind about political correctness. Political correctness might be met with derision, he wrote, but it was also what made his son’s life bearable. In the not-so-distant past, Eddie would have been shut away and people like him made fun of in everyday conversation; now he is received everywhere with kindness and consideration.
Simon was right. I am in the same position as him: I have a daughter, Eliza, who has grown up in a world of kindness that is a world away from that in which I grew up. I hate to think of the bullying and abuse she would have to endure if she were transported back in time to the 1970s classrooms I knew. My generation of children mocked such people because we didn’t know them; they were hidden away, looked after in some institutional world of their own. Bringing people out into society, including them in everyday life is, I am sure, what has sparked the change in attitudes.
All this said, we seem to be heading towards an opposite extreme in which organisations and individuals must now live in fear of people with disabilities rather than the other way around. I shuddered when I read about the case of Ben Gleeson, an 11-year-old autistic boy whose parents have accepted a £42,000 payout from the Scouts on the basis of discrimination. Ben’s parents sued after being told that their son would not be able to attend future athletics events without supervision — this after an incident in which he ran away from the rest of his group after becoming distressed over a pair of missing shoes. The Scouts have launched an inquiry into the case and invited the National Autistic Society to advise.
I don’t know Ben or his family, and neither have I heard the side of the story of the Scout leaders who made the decision that he needed to be supervised, but I am a veteran of many a special-needs meltdown and I can say for sure that it can be an alarming experience for anyone who is not used to such behaviour or who has not been trained to cope with it. A typical episode in the case of Eliza when she was in mid-teenage years might have involved her deciding to lie down on the pavement or, worse, in the middle of the road and wailing in response to some minor and obscure frustration.
To insist that an individual with behavioural problems of this nature is under the supervision of a one-to-one carer during group activities is pretty standard practice, as it needs to be in many instances. That is exactly what used to happen when Eliza went to Guides. When the girls went on their annual camp she did not go for the whole week but joined them for a day in which she took a full part in activities — with the help of a carer. I have pictures of her abseiling and canoeing, and by all accounts she had a great time.
I am sorry if it makes me sound a lax parent but I can’t honestly say it occurred to me to sue the Guides on the grounds that my daughter had not attended the whole camp. On the contrary, I was grateful for the ways in which she was included. And if I had been dissatisfied, it would not have been without consideration for the other children in the group. I want Eliza to be valued for the entertaining and fascinating person she is, not secretly resented as the girl who stopped us going sailing, or whatever, because she threw a tantrum and by the time that was sorted out it was time to go home.
Maybe Ben was capable of being included in more activities than he was allowed to; I just don’t know. What I do know is that the £42,000 paid out to his parents could have built a small Scout hut. Instead, the sum has been paid out like a lottery prize. Why do we have to have such a punitive, litigious culture around disability? It stands somewhat at odds with how we treat children themselves. All the professionals employed to deal with what is euphemistically known as ‘challenging behaviour’ are insistent on one thing: what works is to focus on rewarding good behaviour, not inducing punishment for bad behaviour.
Yet when it comes to persuading businesses, voluntary organisations and so on to be inclusive towards people with disabilities, the opposite principle seems to apply: the law doesn’t reward them for what they have done; rather it threatens them, and hands out severe financial punishments, for what they haven’t done.
Why can’t we have incentives, financial and otherwise, for organisations which promote inclusion: take autistic kids on your summer camp and be rewarded with a minibus, make your premises more accessible and win a discount on business rates? Threatening organisations, on the other hand, will ultimately prove counter-productive. People with learning disabilities have rights, but then so do people without them.
If you are always holding back a group of children in order to involve someone who is much slower, eventually they are not going to like it — and nor should they. They might not return to the mocking attitudes of the children of my childhood, but they are inevitably going to have a less positive view of people with learning disabilities than when inclusion is properly managed.
There is a good side to political correctness, but I struggle to see anything positive about the aggressive legalistic culture imported from the US through New Labour’s discrimination laws, culminating in the Equality Act. Our society has undergone a fantastic transformation in attitudes, but it wasn’t brought about by hovering lawyers. They might, on the other hand, succeed in partially reversing it.