Learning Disabilities & Autism Opinion

Diversity in social care. Why its important for frontline services

Kathryn Smith, Chief Executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence

A documentary aired recently ‘Hidden Disabilities’ on the BBC featured our former Chair, Baroness Jane Campbell, one of our former trustees, Ann Mcfarlane and our current Co-production Steering Group Chair, John Evans. The documentary was challenging – but essential – to view because of the appalling treatment that many disabled people have received over the years. It looks at how our modern attitudes to disabled people were first formed in the workhouses of Victorian Britain, and how disabled people were often segregated, kept in institutions and stopped from having children.

Highlighting issues such as this is so important because if we don’t recognise our history, including how we have treated disabled people (or any other protected group), if we don’t call out atrocities when we see them, we don’t learn and we don’t improve. In my view, diversity in frontline services, such as social care, is so important because at its heart, social care has a commitment to diversity, to anti-oppressive practice and to equality of opportunity. If social care can’t get this right, what hope for the rest of society? Take institutional racism for instance. Do we shout loudly enough about it? Do we demand and enact change; or are we too often seen sitting quietly, confident in our own values, without challenging the status quo?

I strongly believe we should lead by example, question and challenge ourselves, and make sure we are vocally embracing diversity while calling out oppressive, racist, disablist, sexist and other equally unacceptable behaviours when we see them. Encouraging diversity in social care needs an active approach and needs to be visible throughout the organisation. People who need to draw on care and support come from all walks of life and are naturally diverse. If these people don’t identify with the people offering that care and support perhaps they won’t come forward when they need to.

One of our trustees, diversity consultant and user of services Ossie Stuart, often talks about ‘unconscious bias’. He says that it stems from our tendency to organise our social world by categorising it into ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’. How else would we know when to run away when confronted with an ‘unsafe’ situation? Unfortunately, this categorisation system, which we learn from childhood from our parents and friends, can go wrong and will lead us into making the wrong assumptions about certain groups of people in different situations.

Are you and your staff confident in discussing their own diversity and experiences? Do you have an equality and diversity plan that is led from the top but owned by the organisation? Can you share data on your organisation’s diversity; and what does this tell you? These might seem like tick-box exercises but, without adopting approaches like this, we could be back to Square One and people’s lives, like those in the documentary, might be seen as less important as those in the world at large.

If we don’t have diversity in our workforce we don’t exist in a position where people from all backgrounds will feel confident in coming forward for help. People accessing social care can often feel vulnerable in asking for help; people need to feel understood, supported and not judged, in order to have the confidence to get the right support.

This conversation has gone on for too long without too much real change. We should be pushing for a time when this conversation is no longer needed and where we look back on our history with shame and a promise never to return to those days that Jane, Ann and John – and others – have fought against.

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