Attacks on disabled people are not “just nastiness”

BBC iPlayer - Dave Monk: Essex disability hate crime and Pebmarsh needs a donkey

This was broadcast last Wednesday (so you will be able to listen to it until early next Wednesday). The focus is on “hate crime” against disabled people in Essex, something the host clearly was not too familiar with as he attempted to put it down to “bad manners” and nastiness, and likened it to schoolchildren being teased for having ginger hair. One person he interviewed said that the main culprits were schoolchildren, something which other research bears out.

I’ve never been comfortable with the term “hate crime” used for this behaviour; I would call it gratuitious harassment, or in more simple terms, people picking on the disabled for fun. This is subtly different from hate crime (which is generally motivated by race or the victim’s perceived sexual orientation), although I’m sure it feels much the same to whoever is on the receiving end of it. Still, it goes far beyond mere “nastiness”, and we cannot dismiss it as being just part of life — children, regardless of disability, have a right to go to school without fearing harassment and violence, and it is up to teachers to make sure that teasing does not carry on long enough to disrupt a child’s life and education and does not escalate to violence. It is also the duty of teachers to make sure they do not contribute to or encourage the victimisation, which can be done inadvertently if the teacher is unaware of specific aspects of a child’s disability.

The disabled people who experience this violence are mostly those with obvious mental incapacities, or those with physical conditions which make them stand out, such as cerebral palsy. Many of them are unable to physically fight back, or do not have the resources to know that people pretending to be their friends are in fact taking advantage of them (this has led to murder on several occasions). In one study, people with cognitive disabilities using a drop-in centre were found to be leaving several hours before it closed, because they wanted to avoid the crowds of school children that harassed them on the bus. One person texted the programme said that her daughter had cystic firosis and had never experienced problems, even when she goes out with an IV line in; well, that may well be because CF is an illness, and people do not react to sick people the way they do to those with disabilities which manifest in “odd” behaviour.

There are so many things that could be done to tackle the problem — one of them is to make sure that punishments fit the crime, meaning an end to slaps on the wrist for youths who attack others just because they were bored — but surely the first thing is that we admit that it is a serious problem, that it is distressing and frightening as the threat of physical violence is always there, that it is a serious blight on the lives of many people, and that it’s not just a “fact of life”. That is a lazy, conservative and defeatist attitude, and we will do nothing if we believe at the start that nothing can be done.

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