When the dignity of one person is denied, all of us are denied

// 7 July 2011

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budgetsq.jpg Disabled people in the UK have been under constant attack lately. Whether it’s the vast and wide-ranging benefit cuts; Birmingham city council refusing care to people with substantial needs, which has since been ruled unlawful; cuts in Access to Work, ironically when we are being told we should all be getting jobs; or the impending closure of the Independent Living Fund, the hits feel like they are coming from every direction.

But I read about a case a few days ago, Court tells disabled woman: just wet yourself, and it showed me just how government cuts are affecting real people. It is not an ‘austerity measure’, nor is it ‘small government’, it is an affront to a woman’s dignity and human rights, and we should all be utterly outraged.

Elaine McDonald has just lost a Supreme Court fight for her local council to allow her to continue to have overnight care. Funding was withdrawn by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for the overnight care that Ms McDonald needs to assist her with going to the toilet during the night, and the council instead gave her some incontinence pads, stating that this was cheaper.

Elaine McDonald is not incontinent! And she, quite rightly, objects to being asked to lie in bed for 12 hours at a time (since her care has been cut), in her own waste. She needs to go to the toilet regularly due to a bladder dysfunction, and complained that providing pads instead of care caused a lack of dignity and independence.

Can you imagine if you were at work and your boss stated that bathroom breaks were wasting time and money, and that it would be cheaper for the company to provide everyone with incontinence pads instead? If you weren’t on an authorised break then you could just use the pad instead, and sit in it until you were permitted to go? And Elaine McDonald is in her own home – of course, moving to a care home instead would cost the council considerably more.

Even in purely economic terms this is a questionable decision. The lack of mobility which she will now experience, and the potential infections from spending night after night in your own faeces and urine, could cause significantly worsened health and social problems, which would increase the cost of her care significantly. And some people in Ms McDonald’s situation may try to go to the bathroom or commode regardless, risking increased falls and, thus, increased health and social care costs again.

But the Supreme Court judges ruled 4-1 that the council had acted lawfully. Judge Lady Hale, the sole judge to rule in Ms McDonald’s favour, stated that,

“A person in her situation needs this help during the day as well as during the night and irrespective of whether she needs to urinate or to defecate.

“Logically, the decision of the majority in this case would entitle a local authority to withdraw this help even though the client needed to defecate during the night and thus might be left lying in her faeces until the carers came in the morning.

“Indeed, the majority view would also entitle an authority to withdraw this help during the day.”

Of course, incontinent pads in themselves are not bad things. For people who are incontinent, they are invaluable. But Elaine McDonald does not need them and does not want to use them. Nobody should be put in this position, and she was right to challenge it legally. The depressing truth is that the council and courts rated costs over human dignity, and Ms McDonald could be the first victim of many.

And it seems that she is not the only person being challenged on their use of a toilet to save money. According to The Scotsman, “disabled residents at a supported-housing complex have been told to train themselves to go to the toilet at fixed times to fit in with a strict new rota”. Is this where the infamous Big Society comes in? You can run libraries, or you can assist disabled people to go to the toilet. Because after all, those who should be providing those services will not bother.

[The image is a photograph of a hand, holding a piece of paper on which is printed, “The budget is killing me!”. The photograph is adapted from an original, licensed under a Creative Commons licence, by Steve Rhodes.]

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 7 July 2011 at 9:04 pm

When I heard about this judgement last night on the local London news I too was appalled at how swiftly economic cuts swiftly outweigh a woman’s human right to be accorded dignity and respect. I wonder if those male law lords would feel the same way if they were in this woman’s position and were told ‘too bad you’ll have to use incontinence pads because economic cuts are far more important than your dignity. Oh and by the way when you suffer worsening health problems as a result of having to endure for hours on end soiled incontinence pads you are to blame for putting yourself at risk – not the local authority.’

I’ve no doubt these male law lords would not suffer this deliberate violation of their human rights and would ensure their male voices are heard loud and clear. But women and particularly women who have any disability/medical condition which requires specialist care can be swiftly marginalised because economic cuts are far more important than central government ensuring all its citizens are accorded human dignity and rights.

Big Society – that’s a cover term for neoliberalism wherein all women and men are expected to take responsibility for their own health and welfare and this means the state has no responsibility whatsoever. Reason is because powerful white men already have sufficient financial means to ensure they themselves will never be in a position wherein they will have to rely on the state to decide whether or not they will be accorded suitable health care. Big society – cover term for ‘don’t bother state because we are too busy protecting multi national corporations and ensuring they aren’t subjected to any tax or legislation curbing their abuse of power.’

Yonmei // Posted 11 July 2011 at 12:05 am

I wrote to enquiries@supremecourt.gsi.gov.uk as follows:

I find from a recent judgement published by the Supreme Court, that Lords Brown, Dyson, Kerr, and Walker unanimously feel that it’s entirely appropriate for Elaine McDonald to be left to lie in bed in urine-soaked incontinence pads for up to 12 hours.

I ask on what grounds the Lords Brown, Dyson, Kerr, and Walker came to that conclusion? Do all them use incontinence pads rather than take bathroom breaks? Are they all incontinent? Do they regard their own urine as a pleasant substance?

This is a serious inquiry, which I intend to follow-up if I do not get a satisfactory reply. Four Supreme Court justices have ruled that provision of incontinence pads is all that is required as provision of care: toilet breaks are not essential. Given the ramifications of this decision for all of us who do prefer to use a toilet rather than, as

these Supreme Court justices recommend, just wear an incontinence pad and wet ourselves, I think we have a right to know on what the men who recommend incontinence pads are basing that recommendation.

And I signed my real name and my postal address, indicating I expect a reply (though I doubt I’ll get an answer).

You can too! Write to the court either via their email, or phone their switchboard 020 7960 1500 or 1900, or fax them 020 7960 1901, or best of all write to them at The Supreme Court, Parliament Square, London, SW1P 3BD.

These are the justices who ruled that provision of incontinence pads was just as good as providing a means to go to the toilet.


Barbara // Posted 21 October 2011 at 9:02 pm

Well, I’ve recently come across and reported a similar situation. The only difference being, these people were not offered pads, so left sat on soiled sheets for extended periods of time. I’ve been reading all sorts of blogs and forums and it appears to be something that nobody else has witnessed.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 22 October 2011 at 10:16 pm

How awful. I’m glad you’ve reported it.

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