Disability and brutality

One of the most distressing stories to be in the news last week was an inquest into the murder-suicide of a mother and her disabled daughter in Leicestershire. The family, consisting of the mother, Fiona Pilkington, and two children with varying disabilities — Francecca (sic) Hardwick, who was severely mentally impaired, and Anthony who is now 19 and severely dyslexic — had endured a campaign of terror lasting more than a decade from local yobs, which began when the family moved into the area and escalated when Anthony had some falling out with one of the yobs. Fiona Pilkington complained over and over again to the police, who did no more than ‘advise’ the youths involved, until she could take no more, and burned herself and Frankie in her car. It was reported yesterday that the ‘problem family’ behind much of the abuse is still causing a nuisance for their other neighbours.

The police were contacted 33 times in seven years, but on many occasions never came out; they clearly concluded that this was just some woman over-reacting to petty things. It clearly didn’t seem petty to her or her children:

In one case, an officer accepted Pilkington’s assertion that she had been “over-reacting” by complaining about youths in her garden smoking.

For years, she, Frankie and Anthony, had been tormented by a gang of local boys and girls, some as young as 10. They would gather outside the family’s home, throwing stones at the windows, shouting taunts and obscenities, smashing bottles and urinating in the garden.

Around Halloween and bonfire night, they lobbed flour, water and eggs, and Pilkington would tape up her letterbox, fearing they would put fireworks through it. They mimicked Frankie’s walk and, when she went to bed, would motion through the window to try to get her to lift her nightdress.

When she and Anthony went into the garden, the gang threw objects at them, so most of the time they cowered inside, the curtains always half drawn.

Pam Cassell, Pilkington’s mother, recalled turning up one sunny day to find her daughter sitting in darkness inside.

Pilkington had rung the police to complain that children were walking on her hedge and she had simply been told to close the curtains so she couldn’t see them, Cassell claimed.

Anthony was frequently bullied and was physically attacked several times. Once he reported being hit with an iron bar and another time he was forced into a shed at knifepoint and locked in. When he made friends with the paperboy, the gang started abusing him too.

The coroner, Olivia Davidson, described the family as “patently vulnerable to the eye”, and added:

I think that the officers standing with this family … if they saw Anthony and Francecca, and indeed Fiona, and they heard that they were being taunted and abused and were frightened and their house was being stoned, you’d think the officer … would think these people are vulnerable and these people need help.

Murder-suicides of mothers and their disabled children are not unheard-of; they are, however, usually precipitated by the mother being worn down by onerous care and lack of support than by victimisation (autistics are common victims). A few years ago, several particularly harrowing cases were reported of mentally impaired men being tortured to death by local yobs they took for friends (Brent Martin, Raymond Atherton, Kevin Davies and Steven Hoskin). In July 2007, Andy Rickell of the British disability charity Scope argued in the Guardian that such incidents should be treated as hate crimes, in the same way as attacks on people based on their race, religion or (perceived) sexual orientation. I’m not convinced that these are hate crimes; I suspect that the reason was simple cruelty.

After all, there is not the same motivation to hate people with disabilities that there is for hostility to people based on race or religion. With the exception of some sheltered work environments, it is not generally cheaper to hire a disabled person to do any given job than an able-bodied one; it might even be more expensive, the opposite often being true with foreign workers. Disabled people find it less easy to find partners than able-bodied people (or people without mental impairments), so nobody can say “these cripples are stealing our women”, as was said of black men in Britain in the past. Most disabled people, particularly the more severely so, are at best productive and at worst harmless, so there can be no linking disability with crime as often happens with race. And conspiracy theories about Jews or Muslims mounting a campaign to destroy civilisation as we know it, assisted by ‘dupes’ from mainstream society, much as they themselves are mostly baseless, have no parallel in the world of disability. I’ve yet to hear of an army of militant quadriplegics and their able-bodied carers-cum-henchmen waiting to take over the world.

I suspect that there are four main reasons why there has been hostility and brutality towards people with disabilities. The first is simple disgust or annoyance at the sight of an obvious disability, particularly when it produces an odd appearance or behaviour. This easily lends itself to bullying and violence, both in the street and in environments such as schools. The mentally ill are affected also; a few years ago, a man was stabbed to death on a London bus by a man he had annoyed by talking to himself. The second is the “eugenic” motive, in which “unfit” people are sterilised or, in the most extreme cases, murdered so as to “improve the stock” of the race or nation. Various disability bloggers have covered the Nazi T4 programme, among them Victoria Brignell and Tiffiny Carlson ([1], [2]). From Brignell’s article:

In July 1933, the Nazis passed “The law for the prevention of progeny with hereditary disease” which ordered the sterilisation of all people with conditions that the Nazis regarded as hereditary including visual and hearing impairments, physical and learning disabilities, mental illness and epilepsy. More than 17,000 deaf people alone are believed to have been sterilised during the Nazi regime. Often disabled children were handed over to the authorities by their teachers. Two years later, doctors were given the legal right to carry out forced abortions if they suspected that a foetus was disabled.

However, the compulsory sterilisation of disabled people and forced abortions were just the start. In 1939, the Nazis went one step further and set out to eradicate disabled people altogether. Newborn babies with physical or mental disabilities were removed from their parents, taken to special wards and killed by lethal injection or starvation. In most cases, the parents were told that their children had died of natural causes.

Under a policy known as the T4 Program, disabled people living in care homes were transported to six killing centres, the most notorious of which were Hartheim Castle in Austria and Hadamar near Wiesbaden in Germany. The victims were undressed, given a superficial medical examination and taken to a “shower” room, 60 at a time. Poison gas was then pumped into the room. Once the bodies had been collected, they were dissected and organs removed for medical research. The discarded corpses were incinerated.

From the outside Hadamar looked like a factory and at its height it employed more than 100 staff. It is estimated that 70,000 disabled people had been killed under the T4 Program by the end of 1941. Many ordinary doctors, administrators, lawyers, carers, teachers, religious organisations and relatives were either directly involved or complicit in the removal of disabled people.

Tiffiny Carlson notes (also here):

In the late 1930’s after Hitler came into power, German citizens were asked by the Government to voluntarily give their disabled children over to them, to be euthanized (which they persuaded the Germans into thinking was for the best for their children). But the Government wasn’t happy with just the children. Soon, disabled Germans living in Government-run institutions were being murdered under falsified reasons (secretly dubbed the “T4 Program”). Thousands of German families began receiving letters explaining that their family member had died of pneumonia or some other fatal disease of the time, along with an urn (containing fake ashes).

While other countries did not murder disabled people, programmes of sterilisation affected them, particularly those with (alleged) mental impairments, in Sweden and the USA, among other places. There were eugenic laws which prevented people with certain medical conditions, including epilepsy, from marrying in certain US states. It didn’t stop in the 1940s; as I have mentioned here before, Annette Kalkman, a 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, and no mental impairment, was subjected to a hysterectomy around 1989 or 1990 in Australia, and the transcript gives the impression that sterilisations of disabled young people had been common for years before. People with disabilities still face the presumption that they should not have children or will not be able to look after them, or that they should not pass their “bad genes” on.

A third, perhaps deeper reason is that the presence of a disabled person sometimes reminds someone of their own fragility; Maya Angelou wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, regarding her uncle Willie, who walked with difficulty after having been dropped as a child:

The tragedy of lameness seems so unfair to children that they are embarrassed in its presence. And they, most recently off nature’s mold, sense that they have only narrowly missed being another of her jokes. In relief at the narrow escape, they vent their emotions in impatience and criticism of the unlucky cripple. (p.11)

William Peace, of the blog Bad Cripple, noted earlier this month that he deals with comments like “I’d rather be dead than in a wheelchair” five or six times a year. (Kimberley Robbins, a blind quadriplegic from Canada whose story I mentioned in my post about Hilary Lister, suggests saying to anyone who says something to that effect, “why wait?”.) A lot of people have a real, deep-seated fear of becoming disabled, and perhaps the wheelchair is a symbol of it, even though it is probably one of the less distressing consequences of having a spinal cord injury (compared, for example, to impotence, incontinence, loss of sensation or spasms), or any of the other conditions which might necessitate using one. Some people will turn away from newly disabled friends, perhaps because they cannot bear the thought of what has happened, and unconsciously that it might happen to them (of course, turning away won’t stop it happening, although you could do with your friend’s support if it does).

Another common reaction to visible disability which falls into this category is staring; of course, staring can lead to actual hostility, but it is in itself a source of great distress to many disabled people, as Jenni Taylor, a young woman in Minnesota who was paralysed in a car accident in 2002 and has a ventilator (which is conspicuous), relates in a blog entry (and a poem) titled See Me for Me:

What causes people to stare at the unknown? Fear? Curiosity? What causes people to react differently to those with disabilities? Unacceptance? I know what it’s like to be stared at. I know what it’s like to have people stop in their tracks just to get a glimpse of the unknown. Why can’t people just see me for me and not my disability? Why can’t they just accept who I am and what I’m about. I may not look like everybody else, but that doesn’t give others the right to stare. …

I wake up every morning and say to myself “What can I do today to make a difference? Who am I going to inspire?” However, I get interrupted by curious and fearful people who choose to stare at the unknown. Stare at someone with a disability who is just trying to make it through the day. I am here to tell all those people to see me for me. See others with disabilities for who they are. I would rather have someone come up to me and ask me what happened; ask me who I am and what I’m about; ask me how I got to where I am today. I am proud of who I am. I am proud of the challenges that I have overcome. I am proud of what I’ve accomplished. I am proud of the person I am today. And I will tell you that; if only you would just ask.

Related to this is the way society has shut away the disabled, particularly the mentally impaired, in institutions: long-stay hospitals, boarding schools and the like. There have been many cases of schools refusing to take on children with obvious deformities or disabilities because they might upset other children. Many new parents of physically disabled children have reported being told to leave their babies in the hospital to be institutionalised, and go home and try for another (not all have done so, though). For those sent away, it may represent a double trauma if they have only recently acquired their disability; it separates them from those who care about them naturally and exposes them to thoughtless neglect, ideological coercion (such as teachers preventing deaf children from signing), well-meaning but harmful experimental treatment (as happened to many thaloidomide victims in the UK), cruelty and downright abuse. Of course, special schools are sometimes able to provide specialised care and education, but many of them have simply been warehouses. I recently read the appalling story of Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer (1950-98), a woman with severe cerebral palsy who was incarcerated in a state “school” in Massachusetts at the age of 11, forced into nappies (diapers) when she had been toilet-trained from an early age, forced to share a dormitory with mentally ill people and generally treated as just another imbecile when she was, in fact, an intelligent girl who could not communicate easily because she was paralysed. That was in the 1960s; I know of two blind women who experienced sexual abuse in blind schools in the USA and Canada in the 1980s and 1990s respectively (from other pupils, in both cases).

The incidents of young people being shut away in mental asylums for years for trivial reasons in the UK have become fairly well-known since the 1990s as the elderly victims have been released, often only to nursing homes. Although many of these institutions have closed, conditions in hospitals for the mentally ill have not kept pace with improved care and education for those with physical and sensory disabilities, perhaps because society still fears mental illness and those who suffer from it, often misunderstanding the nature of the various conditions, and perhaps because people think the mentally ill will notice less if they are in a miserable and counter-therapeutic environment.

However, the most important motive in these campaigns of abuse against disabled people and their families is nothing that deep. It’s straightforward cruelty. This is why I am sceptical about the talk of “disability hate crimes” in regard to these long terror campaigns against people like Ruth Pilkington and her children. In British society, and elsewhere, we have an underclass of bored youth with nothing to do and without a decent upbringing, for whom attacking defenceless and harmless people is just sport. In the case of the torture murders such as that of Stephen Hoskin, they take advantage of the mentally impaired, who are impressionable and often lonely and, as was said of Raymond Atherton, prefer anyone’s company to nobody’s; they will not get far with a mentally unimpaired, physically disabled person who is intellectually far above them. Like any schoolyard bully, they will attack anyone who looks different and weak, be they disabled people, elderly foreign-looking men or sometimes anyone elderly, anyone geeky-looking, Goths or sometimes entirely random people. The issue with them is not attitudes to disability, because their victims are usually not disabled (at least, not when the goons first get hold of them). It is a matter of general social breakdown and amoralism in certain sections of British society. For the police to get tough and defend the weak against these hooligans is one way of making sure we don’t see too many more tragedies like this.

Some people might be wondering about the sudden surge in disability-related posts on this blog. I have never been physically disabled and actually don’t know any such people face-to-face (I don’t want to say ‘in real life’, because my online friends actually are real), but I’ve had quite a few online friends with varying disabilities for years: Ginny, Yusuf Dean from Kettering to whom I’ve not spoken for several years but I know he’s still there and running the Kettering New Muslims organisation, and more recently I’ve made the acquaintance of Jenni Taylor and Kimberley Robbins (the first and the last are blind, the last three are various types and degrees of quadriplegics). However, I’d have still posted an entry about the Pilkington tragedy even without this, because it strikes a chord with me personally.

I’ve been in one of the UK’s less exemplary special schools. I’ve been called spastic, flid (thalidomide), mental and even paranoid schizophrenic (not by a medically competent person, I hasten to add). I’ve watched mentally or physically frail teenage boys being tormented for fun (to my shame, I took part sometimes as well). I remember seeing an interview on an evening chat show, when I was about 10, with one of those people who had spent decades in mental hospitals until his recent release, all because “he had tantrums” when he was nine, as I did at that time. Who knows if I would have been institutionalised or subject to sterilisation had I lived at a time or place when it was going on? While, as I have already stated, the disabled are not the only victims of the sadistic treatment meted out to Ruth Pilkington and her daughter or Brent Martin, I think it is a serious indictment of the way our society has become that vulnerable families and individuals cannot go out in the street, or even sleep in their beds, without fear of harassment from malicious people, and that we do not make much effort on their behalf until it is too late.

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