Close Assessment & Treatment Units (ATUs) for people with learning disabilities


Closing Assessment & Treatment Units (ATUs) for people with learning disabilities


It is now more than three years since the publication of the response to the abuse at an Assessment and Treatment Unit (ATU) for people with learning disabilities, Winterbourne View, in 2012.  The report followed public outcry after the revelations of abuse within Assessment and Treatment Units by the BBC Panorama programme (2011).  Despite the Winterbourne View inquiry, and the establishment of the Winterbourne Joint Improvement Programme, there has been a striking lack of progress in reducing the numbers of people with learning disabilities living in institutions.  NHS England’s quarterly data collections show that between 30 September 2013 and 30 September 2014, while 923 were transferred out of ATUs, 1,306 individuals were admitted over the same period .

Despite apparent agreement between government, the third sector and campaigning organisations that all people with learning disabilities should be able to live in a place they ‘can call home’, this has remained an, as yet, seemingly unachievable goal.

Since the introduction of Valuing People (2001), successive governments have promised people with learning disabilities choice and control. Given the string of broken promises made to people with learning disabilities, there is an urgent need to end the institutionalisation of disabled people.

Any proposal to close all ATUs will be characterised, by some, as risky, particularly in relation to people with learning disabilities whose behaviour has been labelled as ‘challenging’.  Indeed, block purchasing of services, competing professional practices and processes as well as market forces and financial incentives combine to sustain the practices of institutionalisation.  In the current social and cultural context in which people with learning disabilities are still denied the status of full citizenship and often forced to occupy the borderlands of the category of human itself, de-institutionalisation is being blocked by attitudinal, systemic and structural barriers. It is only by taking a decisive policy step to close institutions to all new admissions, and thus disrupting the demand for such provision, that appropriate community services will be expanded.

Researchers at MMU have been at the forefront of disability research working in co-production with people with learning disabilities, their families, allies, activists and other academics.  Recent research has evidenced the contributions to civil society and their communities that people with learning disabilities undoubtedly make as well as documenting the continued abuse, exclusion and institutionalisation that haunts their lives (; ).