Why are we restraining and secluding so many disabled children?

In March this year (2021) the Equality and Human Rights Commission is expected to release the findings of a long-awaited inquiry into the use of what are called restrictive interventions in schools. Paused due to Covid, it will doubtless show the widespread use of disturbing techniques, including restraint that harms, isolation booths and other forms of enforced isolation. It will also show patchy information about the use of the techniques, as schools are not under any duty to record those interventions – even when they harm a child. I have been investigating the use of these interventions for over a year, talking regularly to campaigners, lawyers and regulators – and have done some freedom of information requests in schools as well – of which more later. This is another shocking example of how we are failing disabled people.

Disabled children are the most likely to experience these interventions. There are many aspects to restrictive interventions that are disturbing, but one particularly harrowing finding is that children as young as three have been subjected to them. The lives of disabled children matter as much as the lives of non-disabled children and the UK has long led the way in calling for the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream education. But factors including underfunding and poor training of teachers in knowing how to support disabled children at moments when they find school difficult may have contributed to frequent separation of children with special needs from their non-disabled class mates. This de facto segregation starts early, and means that disabled children’s experience of education diverges early from other children – even in what appears to be a mainstream setting. This leads to a parallel life for disabled children in which many are traumatised by their experience of education. At transition, when children become young adults, oftentimes they then experience a crisis – and end up in other institutions, such as assessment and treatment units (ATUs). They then get restrained and secluded again. I’ve written about the awful state of our ATUs previously.

That journey of harm starts in school – so what can we do about it? As I said, I submitted FOIs to schools across England before the outbreak of Covid-19 to find out more about monitoring, reporting and incidence. I am not going to release those results in full as they are already out of date. Schools won’t be the same after the end of lockdown. But what was clear from the FOIs was that few schools monitor their use of restrictive interventions, many do not report their use to parents or carers and incidence varies widely across schools. Different practices are also in play, depending on the training that schools receive from external providers. Some children have ended up with horrific injuries, including broken limbs and severe trauma. One child had their vision impaired as a result of restraint. Many end up with mental health impacts that then, as I said, may lead them to moments of crisis later in their lives – so that they end up experiencing similar restrictive interventions in ATUs, secure children homes, prison or mental health settings.

It’s time that a light was shone on the use of these practices in schools – and schools need to monitor them properly, report them in detail to parents and carers and be aware that these are hugely traumatic to experience. Of course teaching staff must also be protected from harm, but there are other ways of managing behaviour that don’t cause physical and mental harm.

Beth Morrison, who has campaigned to highlight the damage done by such techniques in schools, is in many ways responsible for the EHRC kick-starting this inquiry. Disabled children and their parents owe her a debt of thanks for her work. Other key figures include Nick Hobbs and the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland, Bruce Adamson and other parent campaigners including Deirdre Shakespeare and Elly Chapple. All of the parents have fought for the harm done to their children by restraint to be recognised and also for others affected. This has been a parent led campaign to reveal harm and create change – I hope the EHRC will honour their involvement and transform educational practice in this area for the next generation of children.

For me, as a writer and journalist who has investigated human rights abuses for many years, this investigation has opened my eyes into the rights of disabled children. I offered work on this important topic to most mainstream newspapers. Few of them replied and none of them thought it was news-worthy enough to make space for on the news pages. It doesn’t matter who suffered as a result of these interventions – even when Paris Hilton has spoken out about her experience and campaigned to highlight the issue it receives very little focus. It says a lot about how the media thinks of disability – and disabled children in particular – that this subject has received so little media attention.

The new dawn of disability activism – where it started, where it’s going

2020 was grim, right? I hate to say this, but I’m looking forward to the year turning, and that 2021 brings us vaccination (everywhere) and fewer deaths and serious illnesses because of Covid-19.

One of the main communities affected particularly harshly by Covid, in terms of excess deaths, has been disabled people. This year marks the 25th anniversary since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act, and there’s been a lot of assessment of how much has been won and lost. My publishers, Granta, re-issued a chapter of my book, Scapegoat, which looks at the rise of the movement and you can read it here, free of charge, at Granta Magazine. You can also buy the book on the same link.

I hope that this coming year we’ll see more disability activism, as journalists and activists assess progress so far.

I’m going to be doing more journalism this year, especially on disabled children and women.

Investigative journalism works: the mechanism of impact

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It’s landed, a really thought-provoking report by the film-maker, Christopher Hird, on how journalists can achieve impact with their work, funded by the not-for-profit foundation, Adessium. I edited the report, which is over 100 pages long, and you can read it here.

I also blogged about it for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which commissioned the report, and my blog is below. I’m reposting it as I think the report raises important points for those interested or involved in public interest journalism.

In Investigative Journalism Works: the Mechanism of Impact, a report for the Bureau, journalist and film-maker Christopher Hird quotes the reporter, Horace Greeley, who said: “The moment a newspaperman tires of his campaign is the moment the public notices it.” The aim of this report, commissioned by the Bureau and funded by the public benefit foundation, Adessium, was to look at how journalism can have an impact in the world and get the public to take notice. This is particularly important for not-for-profit media organisations like ourselves; our mission statement states that our core work is in “exposing the facts, informing the public, holding power to account”.

One of the key messages from Hird’s report, which I edited for the Bureau, was that journalists, if they do have an intended aim with their journalism, need to be patient. It requires long-term commitment from editors too, something demonstrated, in particular, by Harold (later Sir) Evans, with his campaign to secure justice for families affected by Thalidomide, discussed by Hird in Chapter Two of our report.

Some journalists debate whether not we should campaign and have clear aims for the end of every journalism project. Others are more comfortable with campaigning – there’s a spectrum of opinion stretching from what one might term pure reporting (exemplified by channels such as BBC Parliament and newer organisations like WikiTribune) through to campaign-led journalism by specialist outfits such as Global Witness and Greenpeace. One of the key messages of Hird’s report is that campaign-led journalism doesn’t have to be a poorer (and, to some, slightly disreputable) cousin to investigative journalism. If anything, Hird argues, with more not-for-profit journalism funded by philanthropic organisations, the return that they seek, in Hird’s words, is “transformation, rather than transactional”. To that end, one key recommendation of the report is that media organisations (following on from some in TV) consider appointing impact editors/producers, who work alongside journalists to achieve desired change.

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We also commissioned a YouGov survey of a representative sample of opinion formers, both in the UK and in Brussels, to gauge their views of impact in journalism. There was widespread agreement that investigative journalism can have impact on consumer behaviour, on policy-makers and can also set a broader media agenda. Over three-quarters of those polled believed that investigative journalism was an important pillar of the democratic process. Strikingly, when asked which investigations had most impact, many of those surveyed singled out the Watergate Scandal and Thalidomide, as well as other scandals (a good number of which involved vulnerable people and children in particular). Hird, therefore, has looked at both Watergate and Thalidomide in the report, as well as scrutinising the Bureau’s drone project and Channel 4’s campaign to shine a light on the aftermath of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka (see picture of slide above).

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Iconic as Watergate is, especially for journalists, Hird argues that the truths of the investigation have been obscured over time. Whilst the reporting was key to Nixon’s resignation, Hird argues, other parts of civil society and the criminal justice system were essential too. “It was not the journalism alone which had the impact. In order for the investigation to gain traction, the legal and political system needed to engage as well..the Watergate story, in its entirety, is a triumph of the checks and balances in the political system.” Reading Hird’s copy, I was also struck by the similarities with the Trump era today; the chapter gave me hope that journalists, working in collaboration with other actors, can hold power to account.

In Chapter Four, Hird turned his attention to a series of films, commissioned by Channel 4, which shone a light on the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which ended in defeat for the so-called Tamil Tigers. Callum Macrae, the producer/director for the films, makes a cogent case for how journalists can and should negotiate with campaigners who are also hoping to bear witness to injustice and, in this case, human rights violations. He attacks the use of the word impartial in this context (something with which I would agree, having filmed with the BBC in Rwanda, after the genocide).

Macrae is quoted in the report as saying: “If you are are impartial between the rich and powerful and the poor and vulnerable, then you preserve the status quo. So I think the word ‘impartial’ is all too often used as a kind of device or fig leaf to cover up what is shoddy, complacent and compliant journalism which does not attempt to speak truth to power.”

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In the final chapter, Hird turned his attention to the Bureau’s own drone project, in which we have sought to increase transparency of the covert drone war by the US against targets in four countries – Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. Our contention, from the beginning of the project, has been that civilian casualties have been far higher than the US has ever admitted. Just as in Vietnam, they are the collateral damage of a war that may spare the lives of American troops – but not of citizens in those countries, including children. As for impact, Hird notes that it has been significant – the drones programme under President Obama was made more transparent and civilian deaths fell. Other groups have also increased their scrutiny of this hidden war. However, since President Trump took office, deaths have risen sharply and the US led NATO mission in Afghanistan has stopped providing us with strike data. Despite this, our work shows, in Hird’s assessment, “sustained commitment..impact is achieved by the interaction between the journalism and other civil society organisations and the political process.”

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Hird concludes that investigative journalism works and can have an impact. Journalists need to be tenacious and bloody-minded if they want to change government policies, bring down the corrupt and save lives. Until now, Hird says, we haven’t had to identify the mechanisms by which journalism achieves its end. But we do now, because, frankly, impact is, as Hird says, “a measure of success and therefore a route to an important source of funding for public interest journalism”.

But funding alone, in my view, probably isn’t what gets most journalists up in the morning. On a personal level, when I look at the journalism I’ve been proudest to be part of, it’s been about results in the real world. From getting war criminals sent to the Arusha war crimes tribunal, to a Guardian front page splash on Turkey Twizzlers, leading to them being taking off school menus, to campaigning for disability hate crime to have parity with other similar crimes, I’ve always been interested in measurable change for the person on the street, whether they are a genocide survivor in south-east Rwanda, a disabled person or even my own school-age daughter and her peers. (And, of course, with these campaigns reform wasn’t achieved by reporting alone.) I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that journalism matters on a visceral level to many reporters.

But impact in journalism is best achieved, as Hird recommends in this valuable report, when lots of other organisations can work with us to achieve an aim on which we can all agree – mediated, to some extent, by the work of an impact producer, as Hird argues.

Lastly, I was struck by Hird’s emphasis on collaboration, whether it was with fellow journalists or with other key figures – law-makers, academics, charities and whistleblowers. The phrase from the disability movement, “nothing about us, without us” is timely right now. As our new network, Bureau Local does already, to some extent, we need to shift position and, where appropriate, align ourselves alongside what Dan Gillmor has termed the “former audience”, who can participate in what we do, rather than see ourselves as set apart from civil society. Then the impact we seek to achieve will be clearer from the outset – and useful to those who entrust us with their stories.

 

2017 Impact Report

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An image of the Bureau newsroom

I’ve been a little silent recently, as I started a new post as Production Editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in July last year and it has been busy.

I’m very pleased to work at the Bureau, as it’s known, with some very talented people.

Towards the end of the year I put together and wrote the Bureau’s Impact report for 2017. It’s a record of sterling journalism in the public interest, following in a long tradition of journalism that seeks to expose wrongdoing and shine a light on poor practice, wherever it takes place.

Here’s the link to the report – it’s an honour to have worked on it for my new employer.

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