England & Wales, Global Covid-19

Jo Whiley: The Marcus Rashford of the learning disability world


Steve's son Stan has now received his first jab (image: Steve Palmer)

Jo Wiley’s campaign has made sure that people with learning disabilities are treated fairly and given priority for the Covid vaccine. Steve Palmer hopes this can usher in new thinking about learning disability across all areas of life.

This article is part of a week of reflection on the past year and what it has meant for individuals, communities and local government. Unlocked: local stories from a global pandemic.

Dolly Parton’s had it. I’ve had it. But Jo Whiley’s sister Frances had to wait and caught Covid-19 before she had a chance to have it. I’m talking about the vaccination. The last time I wrote for this blog it was all about how we were coping with the first lockdown. I didn’t imagine that, by Christmas Eve, my Mum would be going for her first vaccine against Covid-19. What a success story the jabs have been in many ways. However, it just feels that, yet again, people with learning disabilities have had to struggle to achieve a level playing field.

My son Stanley has Down’s Syndrome and is on the clinically vulnerable list. The irony is that after Christmas, five of our extended family members had the virus and Stan was by far the least ill. But you never know what a second infection would be like for him, so there’s still concern. By the way, I was by far the sickest but my job as Down’s Dad is to stop moaning and realise that I took one for the team.

Jo and Frances campaign

Many of us in the extended family have now had the first jab because we’re Stan’s carers. My Mum’s had her second jab. But something’s wrong when DJ Jo Whiley gets offered a jab and her sister, Frances, who has a learning disability, doesn’t. Whiley’s campaign has been amazing; she’s the Marcus Rashford of the learning disability world. Rashford used his fame to raise the issue of children’s access to meals. And got something done. And then Jo’s campaign has helped pave the way for people with learning disabilities to get prioritised.

So, in a short space of time we’ve come a long way. I’ve seen less shocking ‘Do not resuscitate’ headlines in the latest lockdown. Perhaps finally society will realise that people with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to Covid-19 and its effects than most. There’s a distinction to be drawn here though. People with learning disabilities aren’t always vulnerable: they must have choice and control over as much of their lives as possible. But when it comes to Covid-19, there is a particular vulnerability.

Beyond Covid

So let’s not think of learning disability and vulnerability as always inhabiting the same space. Since my last blog it hasn’t all been about Covid-19. I send out a quirky Friday newsletter about learning disabilities and autism, because reporting on learning disability and autism can be glum. And there’s been amazing stories, such as the lad with Down’s doing Elvis impressions, the man who completed the Ironman Triathlons, or the tale of two podcasts.

Jackson Robol – a 17 year old with autism who lives in North Carolina – has difficulty has putting sentences together unless he’s watching sports; so now he runs a podcast and interviews local sports figures. And then there’s 10-year old Pádraig O’Callaghan from County Limerick, whose ‘Paudcast’ helps with his communication skills and confidence.

Back to jab-gate. Dolly, Jo and Frances have all played important roles in making sure that people are getting the vaccine; and Jo and Frances have put people with learning disabilities on top of the agenda. Let’s hope they both get to meet the Queen in person after being included in the New Year Honours list. They may well have saved lives; and in the process, they’ve perhaps made people think about learning disability in a new way.

Steve tweets as @downs_dad_uk


2 thoughts on “Jo Whiley: The Marcus Rashford of the learning disability world

  1. Hi Steve

    Reading this weeks blog has reminded me of the battle that we have to support some of the nation to see people with learning disabilities as having the same opportunities that others have. Its so frustrating that potential isn’t seen first but the Learning disability is and can and does have such a negative impact on the person.

    I love that people that find tasks difficult are empowered to use their strengths to be able to host their own podcasts and people will start to listen and this will lead to not just seeing the disability .Highlighting their ability !!!!

    I work with a great bunch here at MacIntyre and have spent many years encouraging people to showcase their talents and have confidence that is always there but has been flatten over years with comments that are heard and naturally squash dreams that a person with a learning disability have just like you and me.

    I could go on but will leave it there , and how great it is that your son Stan has now been vaccinated .

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