Last night the ITV Tonight programme led the way with a documentary looking at the rise if disability hate crime, press propaganda and palpable apathy on the issue. There was a notable absence from Maria Miller, Minister for Disabled People, who couldn’t find fifteen minutes out of her day to meet the show’s presenter, disabled actor and stand up Francesca Martinez. However she offered a short, bland statement, memorable only because it didn’t address Francesca’s concerns.
The programme makers allowed the stories of disabled people who have experienced hate crime to be told, like Peter Greener, a man who despite working all of his adult life had become disabled and had to rely on benefits. His fluctuating condition, which meant Peter sometimes used his wheelchair and sometimes his crutches, was too nuanced a concept for one of his neighbours to understand. They videoed Peter without his knowledge and targeted him with verbal abuse, even throwing stones at his house and painting abusive graffiti on his fence. The neighbour was found guilty of harassment and criminal damage, and because of the disability hate crime aspect, got a ten week suspended sentence and a restraining order.
Peter endured months of this unwarranted abuse and the stress prompted him to have a heart attack. He survived, but David Askew, a learning disabled man, wasn’t so lucky. His torment at the hands of a bullying gang for years resulted in a heart attack, which killed him.
Fiona Pilkington and her family suffered in the same way for a decade. She finally ended her the torture by killing herself and her disabled daughter Francecca when she set fire to their car. To calm her learning disabled daughter’s fears, she gave her their pet rabbit to hold.
They were failed by the system, and although their deaths should have acted as a catalyst for change, a watershed in attitudes towards disabled people and a strengthening of support and understanding of the lives of disabled people, last night’s documentary reported that hate crime against disabled people is on the rise with more than 65,000 hate crimes being reported in the last year.
The tabloids also play a part. The Sun newspaper touts its “Report a benefit cheat” hotline and with a readership of eight million daily, they must take a percentage of the blame in stirring up hatred of disabled people with their many articles and headlines decrying disability benefit cheats. These many articles fail to appreciate the fact that fraudulent benefit claims make up for less than 1% of the welfare bill. More is lost by the DWP annually in administrative error, yet hundreds of articles lay the blame for the welfare bill at the feet of disabled “scroungers” People don’t appreciate nuance as Peter Greener discovered. His neighbour saw genuine disability and automatically thought “scrounger”. The message is getting distorted and it’s disabled people who are paying the price.
As we enter times of unprecedented austerity, we’re seeing the removal of crucial services, of vital initiatives like Remploy who have given disabled people work for decades. Former employees now find themselves jobless and then abused through no fault of their own. The Welfare Reform Bill is re-assessing millions of genuinely disabled people by the DWP and their implementers ATOS, in an effort to weed out a tiny minority of fraudulent claimants, are setting tests for fitness to work which are narrow, prescriptive and ultimately a waste of time as the majority of appeals find that the person denied crucial benefits is in fact genuinely entitled to them. Government policy, helped out by propaganda in the press, is hardening hearts and fuelling aggression.
Government policy, helped out by propaganda in the press, is hardening hearts and fuelling aggression.
It’s also as troubling as it is familiar, as the superb blogger Mind in Flux details here.
The telling of the story of Gemma Hayter left me devastated as a disability rights campaigner and mum to two girls with disabilities, who both have a condition ripe for constant ignorance and abuse because of its hidden nature. Autism, like many other learning disabilities, leave many oblivious to the neurological brain dysfunction within. This and many learning disabilities prompt high levels of bullying routinely.
I watched the footage CCTV of Gemma Hayter, a learning disabled woman in tears because she just wanted friends. Gemma, so similar to my own daughter Emily, was “befriended” by a gang who after a while became tired of this sweet, gentle person. The footage I watched shows Gemma on the last night of her life trailing behind the gang who had just beaten her, as she wipes away the blood from her nose. As we watch her walking, she is already dying from the internal injuries she sustained in their flat.
As we watch her walking, she thinks everything is over and she will be safe. In fact her “friends” weren’t walking her home as she thought, in fact they were taking her to a railway line where they beat her again and left her to die alone.
The Sun has today cited freedom of press in publishing photographs of Prince Harry because they say it’s in the public interest. The sad fact many are much more interested in a drunk, naked 28-year-old prince having fun with his friends than a 27-year-old disabled woman, stripped naked, beaten and left to die by a railway line by her so called “friends”. A sickening example of the reality of “friendship” for some people in Britain today, can be seen in CCTV footage of the gang walking away and laughing, leaving a vulnerable girl to die.
Vulnerable people aren’t a toy of torture, they are people who trust the rest of us to protect them, who need the rest of us to protect them and to shout out loudly when this doesn’t happen.
This morning this shout came on Twitter from the writer Graham Linehan, who tweeted the link to last night’s documentary and went on to compassionately and angrily question why some who should know better were seemingly so devoid of interest in the issue. He demonstrated that there are people who genuinely do care and who are prepared to use their profile to highlight and question a rise in targeted hatred.
Everyone should take their lead from this good man, in watching the documentary and in asking the questions that it raised so well. Collectively we need to respond to the issues and to the apathy, because until we do, Gemma Hayter and others like her will continue to face the bullying and hatred of disability, even paying for this with their lives. If a society is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable members, then we should all be sickened and ashamed.
Tagged in: Atos, autism, benefit cheat, benefits, bullying, David Askew, disability, disability hate crime, DWP,Fiona Pilkington, Francesca Martinez, Gemma Hayter, Graham Lineham, Maria Miller, Mind in Flux, Report a benefit cheat, scroungers, welfare
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