Demonisation of the disabled affects people whose lives are already difficult. Photograph: Alamy

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The demonisation of the disabled is a chilling sign of the times” was written by Ian Birrell, for The Observer on Sunday 4th December 2011 00.06 Europe/London

Peter Greener endured a barrage of hate from his neighbour. Sometimes, it was eggs thrown at his house, stones thrown at his windows or paint thrown at his fence; more often, it was words hurled in his face: spastic, cripple, scum, scrounger. These assaults went on for months, leaving the former Nissan car-sprayer in floods of tears, feeling suicidal and on antidepressants. He was scared to leave his home in Hebburn in South Tyneside and blamed himself for the upset it caused his wife and two children. “It made our lives hell,” he said.

Like many people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Greener’s regressive condition fluctuates. One day, it affects his memory, the next his speech. Sometimes, he uses a wheelchair; at other times, he can haul himself around on crutches. But this only led to more abuse, with angry shouts he was faking his disabilities and exaggerating his problems to get benefits.

A terrible story to shake our heads over and ponder how a person could be so vile, so inhuman, towards someone already suffering a tough time. But the real tragedy of the tale is that it is all too commonplace in this country. The only unusual thing is that the inadequate perpetrator was caught and given a comparatively strong sentence last month.

Yesterday was international day of persons with disabilities, but in this country they remain locked in a state of virtual apartheid. They are forced to the fringes of society, ostracised from things the rest of us take for granted such as getting a job or going on public transport. Such is the estrangement that a survey last week found two-thirds of Britons actively avoid disabled people because they have no idea how to act around them.

The idea of treating them like anyone else is obviously too much for most Britons. But the Greener case highlights something a new and troubling trend in this supposedly tolerant nation. Note the use of the word “scrounger”, the spiteful claim that he was faking his disabilities. This kind of abuse is being increasingly heard. With economic storm clouds darkening, disabled people have become easy scapegoats in the age of austerity.

Polls have found substantial increases in the number of disabled people experiencing aggression and abuse, with evidence that the attitudes of the rest of society towards them are worsening. Many disabled people were already scared to go out after dark or travel on public transport such is their justified fear of encountering hostility.

Little wonder many people with disabilities are downbeat. Alice Maynard, chair of the charity Scope and a lifelong wheelchair user, told me she was terrified by the surly mood. “I’m quite an optimistic person by nature, but are we facing a truly ghastly scenario, in which we will live surrounded by hate and with a very limited social care system?”

It is not just the vicious attacks capturing headlines that dislocate lives. Take David Gillon, a software engineer who helped build Eurofighter jets before losing his job three years ago. He walks with crutches and has been physically attacked and regularly shouted at in the street since he slipped and injured his back two decades ago.

Earlier this year, someone reported him to the government’s benefit fraud hotline. Officials dismissed the allegation as soon as they walked in his front door, but his condition, which is stress-related, worsened for several months. Now he feels so threatened he barely leaves his house. “If I go out, I know I could suffer more abuse,” he said. One cruel act – and another person left a virtual prisoner in their own home.

As the parent of a defenceless daughter with profound disabilities, such stories disturb me. They should disturb us all. So what lies behind this harsh new mood towards the disabled?

Unfortunately, much blame rests on the shoulders of the media and certain parts of government. There has been a new dialogue over disability, characterised by the constant drip-drip of stories implying vast numbers of disability claimants are bogus, that benefits are doled out without proper checks and taxpayers fund free cars for thousands of children with minor behavioural disorders.

Many emanate from the Department for Work and Pensions, which has twisted facts, manipulated statistics and distorted data to win support for its drive to cut costs and crack down on benefit fraud. This cascade of spurious claims and scandalously spun stories ends up demonising the disabled. It does no credit to Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state, who proclaims himself a compassionate Conservative. Ministers say they cannot be blamed for the actions of the media, but they know how the game is played.

Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in articles about “cheats”, “scroungers” and “skivers” in the media. Not just tabloids, but broadsheets and broadcasters. A recent Glasgow Media Group study revealed a near-tripling of these words in papers, alongside a reduction in reports on discrimination and sympathetic stories about disabled people. Focus groups found people suggesting seven in 10 claimants were fraudulent; in reality, levels of fraud for disability benefits are 0.5%, much lower than for other benefits – and less than the level of errors made by officials.

Among those feeling the coldest chill of this new mood of intolerance are people with mental health conditions, already so often victims of bullying and hate crimes. They may not look obviously disabled, so are targeted as “scroungers”. The charities Mencap and Mind have received numerous calls from people distressed by the witch hunt; one person said they felt like an “object of hate and derision with no escape”.

No one, least of all those with disabilities, disputes the need to prevent fraud. Every pound stolen by a fake claimant is a pound not spent on vital services or much-needed support. Nor is this an argument about the need or otherwise for cuts. My view is that there remains huge inefficiency in public services, although many poor services are being ring-fenced and cuts imposed in the wrong places. But as people scrap for resources and stresses intensify, resentment is growing against the disabled, undermining any good things the government is doing in this area.

It is grossly irresponsible for journalists and politicians to collude in this manner to create a climate encouraging hatred, hostility and abuse towards people for whom life is already so difficult. This would be true at any time, but especially at a time of such uncertainty, when people are fearful of the future and looking for others to blame for their misfortune. Those with disabilities should not be made scapegoats for other people’s sins.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Comments
  • Wendy MacKenzie on Facebook December 4, 2011 at 7:38 am

    It’s propaganda, Nazi style! Turn one section of Scoiety against another and then no-one will stand up for the victims, no matter what horrors are perpetrated against them! They’ll be putting us in Concentration Camps next!!

    • Robert December 5, 2011 at 12:12 pm

      This Arrogant Regime is Not Fit to be in Office

      We Need a Caring Society and a Caring Government is
      Absolutely Essential
      The Persecution of the Disabled is the Kind of Evil the National
      Socialist Regime would of Done

  • Julia Cameron on Facebook December 4, 2011 at 10:19 am

    This is a very good and very timely article, so good on the Observer for publishing it. Perhaps the tide will begin to turn our way

  • Nevbo Wilson on Facebook December 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    i got banned form posting on camerons website, ag fter posting he was a nazi

  • Michael Caits on Facebook December 4, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    I wrote this on the Guardian Comments Page – today at 9:04 p.m. (it may get deleted) Britain is under a Neo-Nazi Occupation.

    All of those who died in the Second World War lost their lives for nothing!

    Their sacrifices shame us: all of us, for out of a period of economic difficulty we have plucked a monstrous Government worthy of the Einsatzgrupen! If you need any more evidence, just LISTEN to the rhetoric of hatred that is being aimed at the Disabled and Mentally Ill, then hear the echoes through the past of those who died at the hands of the SAME people as you!

    Somewhere down the road of history, you thought that the Nazis were something to admire. So you follow the cretins in this Governement and on the way to some vain idea of ‘how things should be’ or ‘how the Welfare State should be shaken up’ you create your own ‘version’ of the “Jews..” Not a hatred based on race – which would be quite wrong (and you know it!) Not ‘real’ people – not in your petty minds – but people you can easily, comfortably and conceitedly hate: preferably from a comfortable distance.so they become people who, when they get beaten up, molested, sworn at or spat at in the street that you can indignantly turn away from and say – “well, Ian Duncan Smith says they are all faking it – so they must DESERVE what happens to them?”

    Do you really think that is not the same self-satisfied, smug and slightly superior excuse some of those who ignored the continual beatings on the streets of Berlin in 1937 gave for their criminal ignorance?

    Do you think that you will escape their fate?

    Your chants, rants, opinionated hatreds and vile poison, looking for ‘Scroungers’ everywhere – and barely finding a tiny minority, while the majority suffer under the same Orwellian boot-heels of Government (especially, in my opinion, the excremental Ian Duncan Smith – the ‘Compassionate’ Conservative (in the way that Josef Mengele was a compassionate Doctor?) The Media (who all seem to be various faces of News International), screaming their abuse because they have had to be more obedient to Cameron et al and toe their ‘coalition party line’: a small reward to the Tories for not hanging Murdoch and chums completely out to dry? Who truly believes any difference will come of Government investigating ‘Phone Hacking?’ And finally, the News Broadcasters – particularly the BBC (who seem to be up to the same dirty-tricks as in the nineteen eighties during the Miner’s Strikes – “accidentally” editing footage to show the Miners at Orgreave attacking the Police!) Now instead, they ‘paint’ metaphorical anti-disabled anti mentally-disabled graffitti in the minds of Joe and Josephine K. Public. Meanwhile, the Judiciary – more corrupt now than at any other time in Modern History agrre with Government at every turn, threats by Nick Clegg in his first months as ‘Deputy’ Prime-Minister to “Reform” the House of Lords. Little wonder their Lordships are being let out of Jail so often, while one sitting scoundrel after another rubs his hands with glee – thinking “treachery against the most unfortunate is such a small price to pay for the reward of NOT losing my seat!” For, without the poodles of their Lordships they could not release the Dobermann’s of corrupt Police Officers. How many Judges does it take to collapse a case of Corruption? Justice is cheap, but The Law is expensive. Far too expensive for the poor. The first act of any Autocratic Government is to dispossess the poorest of Justice – this is why she is blindfolded, for she would tear out her own eyes to see the mockery of The English Judicial System.

    They may not wear the Swastika, but they are – in every way, shape and form, the self same bigots and sub-human diaspora of a Fascist Regime. Whichever way you slice it, the Public (ie. you and me) are all involved in the spread and maintainance of the poisonous propaganda that is leading to all these violent attacks upon those who can barely defend themselves even if only against words. But, there should also be this caveat – by the time you realise what you have already done, agreed to, supported and given your approval to – you will be next. God forgive you: because no-one else will!

  • dennis boe December 5, 2011 at 9:59 am

    WELL yes certainly almost a facist dictator typical tories though people come last always beeen that way sadly voters have short memories, i would incedently add Salmond in scotland to this category , he shouts independence but its his idea of it he walked away from signing the agreement 20 years ago god help us if this secret tory subsidury, ever gets what HE WANTS NOT THE PEOPLE.
    Cameron is a bloody disgrace to humanity most of his clan are mega rich and wee are easy targets, i am not a wheelchair user but i do suffer chronic lower back pain because i grafted for employers for years regardless and now i am paying for that but at leaast i did my jobs properly , i love the sign and have seen these places for real as ex armed forces, GOD BLESS YOU GUYS FOR THIS you know if we werent so soft there would be demonstrations in the streets HOW THE FUCK DO THESE B****** sleep

  • meandmydog December 5, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Please dont forger that it was Blair that stated this, how much did ATOS pay him?

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