Last Thursday ITV broadcast a documentary on the rise in hate crimes against people with disabilities which has occurred since the coalition government came to power and since a rise in rhetoric in both politics and the press against supposed benefit scroungers was used to justify reforms to the benefit system. The programme was presented by Francesca Martinez, a comedian who has cerebral palsy, and featured an interview with a man who had suffered months of harassment from a neighbour who accused him of cheating the benefits system, who was ultimately locked up; it also interviewed Katherine Quarmby, author of Scapegoat, a book about prejudice and hate crimes against disabled people. It also covered at some length the murder of Gemma Hayter, a young woman with a learning disability, in Rugby in 2010. (More: Nicky Clark @ the Independent.)
While the Paralympics are obviously a good time to cover society’s attitudes to people with disabilities and the programme made this connection, this programme did not explore this connection much. They could have mentioned the fact that people who engage in physical activity or do not always use wheelchairs are more likely to be accused of faking their disability because people associate disability with wheelchairs or white canes. The man they interviewed over his experience of hate crime had had to give up work because of a neurological condition and sometimes used a wheelchair and sometimes could use crutches, so it made him an easy target for his ignorant neighbour. The welfare reforms were barely mentioned, so there was no opportunity to highlight the contradiction between lauding elite disabled athletes and impoverishing ordinary disabled people.
Also missing — quite ironic given the fact that it was presented by a comedian — was any discussion of the role of comedy in promoting the normalisation of abuse against disabled people, particularly those with learning disabilities. They also did not interview anyone from the Press, or raise the matter of why groups representing disabled people were excluded from oral testimony at the Leveson inquiry (the interview with Katherine Quarmby may have covered this originally, but that didn’t make the final cut if they did). The murder of Gemma Hayter was covered at great length; however, this phenomenon of so-called “mate crime”, which consists of prolonged exploitation, harassment, torture and murder of people with learning disabilities by people who pretend to be their friends, has nothing to do with the recent scrounger rhetoric and goes back a lot longer. Of course, that issue needed covering, just not in a short documentary about the effect of anti-scrounger propaganda on disabled people.
In short, this was another example of the limitations of the modern 24-minute, documentary-lite format. Yes, you’ve read this moan from me many times before, but almost every one I watch is like this: it is full of soundbites and switches from one aspect of an issue to another and covers nothing in any great depth. In this case, they went for the emotional human interest option, but the example they chose belonged in a completely different category to the type of hate crime that is a huge problem now. There needs to be a serious exposition of both of these serious matters; this was not it.
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