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Health: It’s time to talk

By Steve Scown, Dimensions CEO

Read the original article on The Huffington Post

I’m 55 and I’m hoping I’ve many good years of life to come. But here’s a thought – a man my age with learning disabilities is quite probably entering the last five years of his life.

I’ve found it sobering and frightening and immensely upsetting as I’ve learnt more about the average life spans of people with a learning disability. A man dies 19 years before his non-learning disabled counterpart and a woman 26 years earlier.

As I’ve learnt more I’ve felt ever more guilty for not knowing – for not asking. The fact that these gaps are narrowing gives me no comfort at all.

We all know that when we’re physically healthy it is easier to feel happy. Health and Happiness are virtuous (or vicious) circles. Dimensions’ own work with the University of Kent’s Tizard Centre has shown that the single most important starting point for helping people with learning disabilities to live great lives, is to support them to be healthy.

Without health, delivering great support work becomes so much harder. Many of the roots of so-called challenging behaviour, for example, lie in poor physical or mental health.

People with a learning disability are very likely to have other health needs. They are three times more likely than others to die of circulatory illness, and five times more likely to die of respiratory illness. They are exceptionally high users of NHS services including surgery and psychiatry.

For those that live longer, they are nearly four times more likely to suffer from dementia. Together with poorer innate health, people with learning disabilities are particularly exposed to social drivers of ill health such as poverty and unemployment.

Both the NHS and Public Health England (PHE) aim to tackle health inequalities like this. Such aims are vital – but here’s some more statistics that suggest a broader approach is needed. Less than a quarter of the one million people in England with learning disabilities are registered with a GP; half take up their entitlement to an annual health check.

In the East Midlands, for example, 33% of registered people are in contact with their local NHS learning disability service, in the South East the figure is just 3%. There’s a massive and regionally uneven hidden majority of learning disabled people who are simply not accessing the healthcare they are entitled to and need.

PHE has now concluded that the low levels of take-up are due to a combination of stigma (an unwillingness to self-identify as learning disabled) and the operation of eligibility criteria (thresholds which ration access to specialised support.)

The latest PHE report also draws attention to disparities in the quality of treatment received through the NHS, highlighting an urgent need for specific training around communications skills and consent.

That’s why we all need to talk about health. Health professionals, and social care providers such as my organisation Dimensions, need to take a hard look at how to tackle stigma and challenge eligibility criteria. But everyone has a part to play.

If you have a learning disability, or if you are a family member, a friend, an advocate or a support worker of someone with a learning disability, make a New Year’s Resolution.

Visit your GP, get yourself (or your loved one) registered as having a learning disability. Take up your right to an annual healthcheck. And make sure you are suitably supported in hospital. Your health, your happiness, and ultimately your life depends on it.

Source for all data: Learning Disabilities Observatory, “People with learning disabilities in England 2015: Main report”