Union activists have drawn disturbing parallels between the hostility being experienced by disabled benefits claimants and the events that led to the murder of tens of thousands of disabled people in Nazi Germany.
Delegates to the TUC’s annual disability conference were told how disabled people in Nazi concentration camps had been forced to wear black triangles “because they couldn’t produce anything” and were “useless eaters”.
The Nazi Aktion-T4 programme is believed to have led to the targeted killing of as many as 200,000 disabled people, and possibly many more, and became the blueprint for the “Final Solution”, through which the Nazis hoped to wipe out Jews, gay people and other minority groups.
Sasha Callaghan, from the University and College Union, a founder member of Black Triangle, which campaigns against the government’s cuts to disability benefits, said headlines in UK newspapers about “benefit cheats” and “work-shy” disabled people had echoes of Nazi Germany.
She showed delegates a series of negative headlines in newspapers gathered over just a few days last autumn.
Only last month, disabled activists demonstrated outside the offices of the Daily Mail to protest about the newspaper’s “disablist” and “defamatory” coverage of the government’s push to force people off incapacity benefits.
They claimed the stories and their “lurid” and “sensationalist” headlines – such as “76 % of those who say they’re sick ‘can work’” – labelled disabled people as cheats and scroungers and fuelled hate crime.
Berni McCrea, from Unite, Britain’s biggest union, said she believed the attitude towards disabled people demonstrated by the headlines shown by Callaghan “suits the government very nicely”, and added: “It is very evident that there is a softening-up process.”
She said Callaghan had described “very well what happens when people are softened up and hated… What happened in Germany in the early 30s. I do think we must take it very, very seriously.”
Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and an NUJ delegate and member of the TUC disability committee, said the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into disability-related harassment had produced so much evidence – 15,000 pages – that its completion had been delayed.
Brookes said the inquiry had shown a “systematic failure in all areas”, including by housing organisations and citizens advice bureaux, which showed the need to “work together”.
He said there was a need for better training around disability hate crime, as well as efforts to tackle complacency, such as the tolerance of abuse in care homes and hospitals.
He called for disabled people to work together to increase the reporting of hate crime. And he attacked the government over its commitment to tackling the issue.
He said: “It was a government priority and Maria Miller [the minister for disabled people] still says that disability hate crime is a priority and goes round visiting projects… before pulling the money from them.”
Meanwhile, a new report by Essex Coalition of Disabled People identifies key areas that need to be addressed in tackling disability hate crime.
The report calls for greater understanding, with education focused on disabled people, professionals and wider society; better services to support disabled victims; and improved reporting procedures.
But the coalition’s “primary recommendation” is that these areas can best be addressed by a user-led organisation working in partnership with the police and other agencies.