Harassment “commonplace” for those with learning disabilities

Last Wednesday in Manchester, a 64-year-old man with learning disabilities, David Askew, collapsed and died after two youths broke down his garden gate and tampered with his mother’s scooter. He had not been physically assaulted, but had been the subject of a campaign of intimidation by a gang of local yobs. Neighbours described the harassment as “like bear-baiting” and claimed that he had been “called names by children as young as eight who threw eggs and bricks at his house, kicked the door, and took his money and cigarettes”. Tom Shakespeare, an academic who has restricted growth (and nowadays, paraplegia), wrote in an online article for the Guardian last Saturday that he had faced persistent harassment over the years and that this spate of attacks on mentally impaired people had convinced him that hate crime was a real problem, while a letter in today’s paper suggests that young people need to be confronted with the hurt that this kind of harassment causes.

To quote from that letter, from the chief executive of United Response, a charity which supports those with disabilities and mental health needs:

Your report refers to how young people “bullied him [Askew] relentlessly”. The sad fact is that this is the reality for thousands of people with learning disabilities across the country, and even when death isn’t the result, their daily reality can be unbearable. One of our drop-in centres where people with learning disabilities meet to socialise and learn new skills is open until 5pm, and is normally teeming with activity. But at 3pm, there is a sudden exodus. The reason: everyone wants to get home before children are out of school and taunt them on public transport.

Shakespeare’s article makes a similar point: that when talking to those who work as advocates and supporters for those with learning disabilities, he discovered that this kind of harassment was a constant problem for everyone they worked with:

They told me about conferences and gatherings where people had shared horrific experiences, which to them were commonplace. People being sellotaped to trees while people laughed, people being urinated on, people who had dog faeces put through their letter boxes, people who were beaten up. Faced with this constant exposure to the risk of abuse and violence, people with intellectual disability remained stoical and uncomplaining. Sometimes they were unable to make a complaint. Often, they were disbelieved, or were not taken seriously as witnesses. In most cases, the police were unwilling or unable to take effective action.

The problem is that defining this behaviour as “hate crime” misses the point about what motivates it. Hate crime usually refers to brutal attacks on, or even murders of, people from ethnic minorities by racists, or sometimes of gays or others with non-standard gender profiles. People who torment those with disabilities do it for fun. Hate crime itself in this country is really very rare and every incident of someone being killed for such reasons is news, but the persistent harassment of those with disabilities is something that is not talked about much, and perhaps a lot of people think that the occasional incidence of a brutal death, such as David Askew’s or Brent Martin’s, is all there is to it, when in fact it’s the tip of the iceberg.

How can we deal with it? The people who do this sort of thing need to be cracked down on, both by the authorities and the local community. We are far too passive a society, and people will turn away when others are being attacked in front of them, partly for fear of getting injured themselves but, I suspect, also partly due to the fear of getting arrested themselves. Francis Gilbert, in his book Yob Nation, tells the story of a man who saw a couple of young boys running down the street pushing old ladies over for fun. When one of them knocked into him, he sent the yob flying, but received a summons and was bound over. The magistrates advised him to just “walk on by” if he saw any such thing happening again. The police cannot be everywhere all the time, and yobs need to know that there will be consequences if they attack vulnerable people for no reason.

As for the authorities, the most obvious thing that needs to happen is that it should be an aggravating factor in any assault or act of harassment if a person has an obvious disability, or if the attacker knows that the person has one. This would make any new law on “disability hate crime” unnecessary, since it would remove the need to prove that it was motivated by hate, which would not be true if the attackers were simply doing it for fun. There needs to be a better police presence in some of the places where these things happen, and monitoring of households known to be vulnerable, both open and covert, so that those responsible know that they cannot get away with it. There should also be tougher action against harassment on public transport, with those responsible ejected, possibly banned, and the possibility of any free travel, as with children in London, being removed.

As for taking those affected into schools to show the children how much the harassment hurts disabled people, this has some benefit but people who bully do so precisely to cause hurt. It will go straight through some people even though it might encourage other children to act against it if they see it. The harassment will only die down when the thugs responsible know they cannot get away with it.

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