Embracing Failure and Changing the System

I was talking to my sister the other day about being a parent. About how it doesn’t really matter how hard you try to get things right the only inevitable thing about parenting is the amount of stuff you’ll get wrong. And all you can do is your best and it doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read or classes you’ve attended, we will all make mistakes and the harm we do, or don’t do, in making those mistakes, will so often simply be a matter of fortune or a function of the speed with which we recognise or admit that we’ve got something wrong. And it struck me that there are parallels in that.

There has been a lot of discussion recently, some of it involving me, about the actions of powerful organisations working with autistic people, and people with learning disabilities. And I’ll be honest, it’s a subject around which I feel particularly torn, and around which I am particularly inconsistent. On the one hand – in a system that appears to systematically function to undermine peoples’ rights and well-being – it would be wrong not to hold the most powerful organisations operating within that system to account for their failings. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the idea that an organisation has to be perfect, or not guilty of certain of certain kinds of mistakes, in-order to be viewed as a good and approved of organisation.

In truth there are no perfect organisations, just as there are no perfect parents. At one time or another every single organisation that works with autistic people or people with learning disabilities will harm an individual, or individuals, in their care. The thing that will differentiate between them, is the willingness to search for their failings and speed at which they recognise that they have got something wrong.

But unfortunately, there are some organisations that are totally indifferent to the idea that they might be more effective if they did somethings differently. Or that the unshakeable faith they have in the way that they do things may actually be harming the people they are meant to serve. Yet even these organisations will be full of people who care and who fervently want to do the right thing. In contrast to this there are other organisations who will treat every mistake as if it were a wound inflicted upon a person they love, and whose instinctive response to failure is to embrace and protect the well-being of the people in their care rather than the reputation of their organisation.

In one of my recent tweets I asked if people thought it was possible to change the system without Mencap. There were a range of responses, most of them negative with some people thinking (including me) that they would never change and that their dominant position within the system would need to be replaced. And others who felt that they would be more responsive and more able to advocate for people with learning disabilities if they separated their campaigning activities from their work as providers. It’s likely that either of these options would have a significant impact on our collective ability to transform the current system of provision and with it the everyday lives of autistic people and people with learning disabilities or difficulties.

But the reality is that in its current form, Royal Mencap is an organisation that has a dominant position within the sector and an unshakeable faith in its current strategies. An organisation that has systems in place to learn from its mistakes without the compassion needed to admit to them. It is an organisation that will campaign for and support individual families, whilst at the same time it is unable to challenge government because of its role as a provider and its dependence on local and national government budgets. And because of that dependence on government, because of the failure of its leadership to recognise and embrace the mistakes they are making, ultimately Mencap will fail the people they are meant to serve and they will fail to force the change we need. Which is a shame because there are millions of people with learning disabilities and thousands of employees and supporters who deserve so much better.

Can we change the system without Royal Mencap? We can but if recent history is anything to go by they’ll try and take credit.


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