Dan Parton cutThe past 12 months saw the care of people with learning disabilities again hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. Editor Dan Parton looks back.

In recent years, when people with learning disabilities have hit the national headlines, it tends to be for the wrong reasons – often due to a major failing in care and support services that has led to abuse, neglect or death: 2015 was no different.

The tragic – and unnecessary – death of Connor Sparrowhawk at an assessment and treatment unit run by Southern Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in 2013 has been regularly in the news for the past two years, thanks largely to tireless work by his mother, Sara Ryan, and her Justice for LB campaign to get justice for her son.

In October 2015, a jury inquest ruled that neglect contributed to Connor’s death, providing some vindication for the family.

This was followed in December by an independent report by Mazars into unexpected deaths at Southern Health, which heavily criticised the trust for its failure to adequately investigate unexplained deaths.

The trust has apologised to Connor’s family. Worryingly, Katrina Percy, chief executive of Southern Health, said that the trust believed its rate of investigations into deaths was in line with that of similar NHS organisations. If this is the case, we may hear of more trusts coming in for criticism in 2016.

Elsewhere, it was announced in October that NHS England were the latest to have a crack at solving the apparently thorniest of problems – how to get people with learning disabilities out of assessment and treatment units and back into their communities. After the failures of previous plans – including the Winterbourne View Concordat and the Bubb Review – there was understandably some cynicism from people with learning disabilities and their families when NHS England’s ‘Homes not Hospitals’ plan was announced. Whether this feeling proved correct will be shown in time – it has three years to deliver on its goals.

As with previous years, welfare benefits – and cuts to them – were a recurring theme in the news. The most read story on this topic on the LDT website concerned a High Court victory for carers over the government and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

The High Court ruled that Duncan Smith unlawfully discriminated against disabled people by failing to exempt their unpaid full-time carers from the benefit cap. The Court upheld that carers’ Article 14 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights had been contravened by not considering the impact on disabled people. 

There were also more positive stories during 2015. The most read news story on the LDT website came from January, when Hollywood star Hugh Grant starred in a play about acting with a learning disability alongside 25 actors with a learning disability.

The Drama Group is a play based on a book from Baroness Sheila Hollins’ Books Beyond Words series. The book was co-written by her son Nigel Hollins and Grant. The play was performed by The Baked Bean Theatre Company, a collective of actors with learning disabilities, with Grant making a special appearance.

Another popular story on the website was of a man with learning disabilities in Stratford-upon-Avon who authored a series of crime prevention booklets. Christopher Langman decided he wanted to do something to help other people with learning disabilities following a tour of Stratford-upon-Avon police station. After reading some of the crime prevention booklets produced by the police, Langman wanted to help share the information with those who may find it hard to understand the advice, also including those who do not speak English as their first language.

What 2016 may hold for people with learning disabilities, their families, carers and the professionals who work with them will be covered in a forthcoming blog.