If You're Not Quite Human ....

Mark Neary

If You're not quite human, why would you want or need a friend?

We see the phrase "not quite human" often applied when trying to understand how people with learning disabilities and/or autism can be treated so appallingly by the State and the many bodies it considers its partners.

I had the idea to write a series of pieces where each post explores a particular example of not being seen as human and the consequences for the person and those that love them. I started drawing up a list of potential topics and came up with 24 themes in 10 minutes. Sadly, I suspect with more thought, I can come up with many more and the "If you're not quite human" collection will turn into a hefty volume. I suppose the good side to this is that the multitude of ways in which people are dehumanised will be assembled in one place and the sheer weight of evidence will be too much to ignore or dismiss.

Let's kick off with friends. Why would someone who is not quite human ever want or need or benefit from having a friend.

My first story isn't a learning disability story but the State are heavily involved and plays into my suspicion that dehumanizing knows no bounds. The more people we see as not quite human, the more power we obtain and the better we feel about ourselves. This story was told to me by one of my clients and he's given me permission to write this heavily anonymised version. J came to the UK as a refugee in the mid 90s. He was on his own. His family had been dispersed all over the world. He was 11. For the first 3 years he was placed in a large children's home. It was incredibly brutal but he made a couple of good friends, including M. After 3 years, he was moved to a foster family. He wasn't allowed any contact with his friends from the children's home. In fact, the social worker, the home and the foster mother actively prevented contact. J had to start all over again at 14. He remained in the foster home but knowing that at 18, he'd be out on his own. At 17, the foster mother died suddenly and the social worker told J, "It's not worth sending you to another foster home. We might as well set you up in your own home earlier than expected". Setting him up was exactly the right phrase. He was totally ill equipped to be an independent 17 year old care leaver. He has described to me the intense feelings of loneliness that in turn turned into daily suicidal thoughts. 10 months after moving into his own place, J  was mooching around the town centre and who should he bump into but M from the children's home. It had been 4 years since they had last seen each other. Over a McDonald's they discovered they were in identical living situations and they hatched a plan to move in together. 20 years later, J's biggest regret is that they didn't just go ahead and do it. Two days after this encounter J went for his 6 monthly case conference. Excitedly he told the social worker his plan. He will never forget her "rage". She admonished him for his "dependency and ingratitude". She made it very clear that they could not go ahead with their plan, their friendship. Within the week, M was moved out of the borough. J has never seen him since. The social worker didn't think their friendship was important.

After J told me this story, my mind went back to Steven's time in the ATU. Amongst all the grimness, he made a friend. Another Stephen. They bonded through music and Stephen taught Steven some juicy swear words. It was very moving to see this quirky relationship that seemed to enrich both participants. Nine months into the detention, I visited Steven one day to discover Stephen had been discharged that morning. Steven had a case conference the following day and I asked them whether if it was possible to pass on our contact details to Stephen in case he wanted to get in touch. I had romantic visions of the two chums having "fucking Andrew Ridgeley" music sessions once they both achieved freedom. The response was like I'd asked for something perverted. No because of confidentiality reasons. No because of Capacity questions. No because of risk potential. No because it might be in neither Steve's best interests. So that was that. A fleeting friendship because the professionals didn't have the imagination to see a relationship of value.

And now to my shame. Three years later I turned up at the Civic Centre for a meeting. Across a packed waiting room, I saw Stephen with a bored looking support worker. He called me over. We had a great 10 minutes catching up and learning new blasphemies. Then two doors opened. This was the time we were about to be made homeless and the housing manager called out my name. Through the other door appeared Whistler's Mother. It was the first time our paths had crossed since that day in court. It was an intensely emotional moment and I forgot to say, "Steve, what's your phone number mate?" By the time I came out I'd missed him. I sat outside in the concourse but I knew I'd missed the moment. I didn't have the balls to collar the social worker and ask her the same questions I asked 3 years previously. I knew I'd have got the same answers. For her, Steven and Stephen were objects. Cases to be managed. She couldn't see two mates.

If you're not quite human, you don't have friends.