Learning Disability Week, launched by the charity Mencap, is an initiative which aims to ensure “the world hears what life is like if you have a learning disability”.
A learning disability affects the way a person learns new things, how they understand information and communicate. It is estimated around 1.5 million people have a learning disability in the UK, and approximately 54,000 adults living in Wales. Some have a mild, moderate or severe learning disability and this remains throughout life.
This article highlights the challenges people with a learning disability face in their daily lives and considers recent developments to achieve better, fairer outcomes.
Many will experience poorer health and die at a younger age
The 2021 NICE Impact report on People with a Learning Disability highlighted the poor health outcomes for people with a learning disability compared to the rest of the population. Many people with a learning disability will experience poorer health and die at a younger age:
In 2019, the majority (85 per cent) of people in the UK population died aged 65 and over. The corresponding proportion of adults and children with learning disabilities for 2018 and 2019, was 38 percent.
There is a lack of data on people with a learning disability in Wales. The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee also highlighted a lack of equality data in relation to all disabilities during its inquiry into inequality and the impact of the pandemic. Nevertheless, available evidence highlights the real challenges faced by people with a disability in Wales:
- The JRF Report Poverty in Wales 2020 found that 27.2 percent of disabled people in Wales are in poverty compared with 20 per cent of non-disabled people.
- In 2021, median pay for disabled employees living in Wales was 11.6% less than non-disabled employees (although this was the narrowest gap of the four UK nations).
- The disability employment gap (the difference between the percentage of disabled and non-disabled in employment) in 2020/21 was 32.9 percentage points.
- 11% of recorded Hate Crimes in Wales were judged as relating to disability as a motivating factor.
The Welsh Government’s ‘Improving Lives’ programme
In 2018 the Welsh Government introduced the learning disability transformation programme Improving Lives. Work on the programme began in 2017 with a “wide ranging review” that involved meetings with 2,000 people including people with a learning disability along with their families, carers, and those who work with them. The review considered what a person with a learning disability, and their families or carers may require across the course of their lives.
The programme identified key priority areas to address inequalities and improve the lives of people with a learning disability in Wales, including their early years; housing; social care; health, education and employment.
Improvement Cymru, the improvement service for NHS Wales, described the programme as “the biggest investment in terms of resources and national guidance for people with learning disability in Wales for 30 years”.
The programme was impacted by the pandemic, and was paused for six months before it came to an end in March 2021. COVID-19 had an impact on the programme’s progress but also had a disproportionate impact on people with a learning disability.
People with a learning disability were more at risk of dying from COVID-19
The pandemic raised challenges and opportunities for disabled people – from the changing physical environment to more flexible working. The starkest impact is highlighted by a Public Health Wales report which found that people with a learning disability were around 3 to 6 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the population as a whole.
A Welsh study found that fewer than half of the people with a learning disability who used to have an Annual Health Check had received one by August 2021. These checks are an important “proactive review of an individual’s health needs”, and are associated with reduced deaths, especially for people with autism or Down’s syndrome.
The Learning Disability Consortium in Wales said the impact of COVID-19 on employment varied, with some people finding it difficult to balance work with keeping safe, while others reported new ways of working and learning new skills.
Responding to the pandemic
The Welsh Government’s response to these issues during the pandemic was welcomed by learning disability organisations who said it had been “largely responsive to our concerns throughout this crisis”.
In March 2021, the Welsh Government published analyses on the impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities. In response to the ‘Locked Out’ report which looked at the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people, the Welsh Government stated that it would establish a Minister-led Disability Rights Taskforce and publish a Disability Rights Action Plan.
Next steps: opportunities or further challenges?
The Welsh Government made a number of commitments in its Programme for Government aimed at improving the lives of disabled people, including closing pay gaps for disabled people and making the transport system more accessible. It is also proposing to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Welsh law - a move which has been welcomed by Disability Wales.
In May the Welsh Government published the Learning Disability Strategic Action Plan 2022 to 2026 which “incorporates Improving Lives legacy actions”, and key issues identified by the Learning Disability Ministerial Advisory Group (LDMAG) The strategy focuses on helping services and people with learning disabilities as we continue to emerge from the pandemic.
Welcoming the new plan Learning Disability Wales said it “has the potential to make a significant difference to people with a learning disability in Wales”. They emphasised however that they would have “liked to have seen more concrete outcomes in terms of how the impact of the plan is going to be measured and reviewed” and information about the costings “to ensure the measures in the plan will be sufficiently financed”.
The Action Plan is timely given the cost of living crisis and the disproportionate impact on disabled people. Research conducted by the disability charity Scope found that disabled people have been “hardest hit” by the crisis.
While the Welsh Government has committed to take action to improve outcomes, making progress will be fair more challenging than when Improving Lives was developed.
The LDMAG will oversee the delivery of the plan and a formal review will be undertaken in spring 2024.
Article by Claire Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament