Although most people have heard of the Holocaust, many are still not aware of the estimated quarter of a million disabled people murdered by the Nazis.
Being written out of this terrible period of history is part of a continuing story of disabled people’s segregation and struggle to gain recognition for their human, social and legal rights.
Extreme cases of systematic abuse, violence and in too many cases, fatal attacks reach the headlines but most acts of discrimination, abuse and violence against disabled people remain unreported.
Despite equalities legislation, disabled people continue to experience institutional barriers to education, employment, social and family lives.
Disabled people lack access to the mechanisms which would enable them to challenge these barriers.
The publicity disabled people receive tends to encourage rather than challenge negative attitudes to people who have impairments.
This was the why Glasgow Disability Alliance and Inclusion Scotland co-facilitated a Holocaust Memorial Day Event attended by disabled people and representatives from the police, media and education services.
The event made the links between this terrifying period in history and the treatment of disabled people today. Parallels were drawn between sensationalist and unrepresentative media reporting today and Nazi propaganda.
The Nazis portrayed disabled people as less than human, calling them ‘useless eaters’ to help justify their terrible crimes against humanity.
Today, disabled people are presented as benefit scroungers and a drain on the tax payer in order to justify massive cuts to the benefits they rely on.
These cuts place additional pressure on other public services which have also been cut back.
There is a risk to physical and mental health if disabled people cannot get the benefits and services they need.
Increasing marginalisation and negative reporting could lead to a rise in hate crime.
In groups, participants used the idea of the ‘Ladder of Prejudice’ to gather first-hand experience of discrimination and prejudice. Each rung of the ladder represented a different level of behaviour from upsetting forms of verbal abuse to serious and even fatal attacks.
The first rung is speech.
In the groups people spoke about their own experience of verbal abuse; about being subjected to inappropriate personal questions; people not knowing what to say if you are disabled and people making insulting comments for laughs.
The second rung is avoidance.
Examples include: being ignored or excluded from family and other social events; shop assistants speaking to the person you are with rather than you; segregation in separate schools which no-one who lives near you goes to; segregated at playtime; sitting alone; effectively silenced because people ignore your views or look down on you. You end up avoiding people as much as they avoid you because of these insulting attitudes.
The third rung is discrimination.
Discrimination in employment came up a lot in the discussion: being regularly excluded from short-lists for jobs; having a job offer withdrawn when the management found out the person was disabled – a case that was successfully challenged at a tribunal; the lack of support at work despite their employer knowing about their disability and being too scared to ask for help.
Some disabled people receive more help than others – there is inconsistency there. Other forms of discrimination were found in education, housing and reproduction. People also spoke about the intersection of different types of discrimination, for example, a young man refused assistance to go to a gay nightclub due to the homophobic attitudes of a care assistant.
Others spoke about being treated as incapable, like a child even, in terms of having their choices respected and their needs met.
The final rung is physical attack.
This highest level of abuse included sexual as well as physical assaults and folk approaching and demanding money in a threatening manner. People told of their experience of bullying and name calling on a daily basis when they were at school. It also included abuse against the families of disabled people by association, including against children.
People had experience of their personal assistants also coming under attack by neighbours. However, organisers of this event were very clear that this was about bringing about change and not about portraying disabled people as victims. Groups discussed what needed to be done and who needed to do it.
Laws and legislation were already in place but they were useless unless they were acted upon.
They must come with real consequences.
People and organisations had to be held to account for their actions or inactions.
It was acknowledged that negative images and myths about claiming benefits needed to be tackled. It was imperative that the media were persuaded to use positive examples rather than patronising or negative examples of disabled people.
Disability awareness training should be more readily available for service providers. Simply talking about disability could make a difference. Often it was simply a matter of asking a question and getting an answer. Family and friends also need to understand that disabled people had a voice of their own which should be heard.
As one person put it:
“I am human. I can speak for myself”
Participants spoke about the need for far more disability recognition in school and it was felt that local authorities must make mainstream schools better and more accessible for disabled children, bringing educational segregation to an end.
In addition to group discussion, invited guests spoke and took questions about the work they were doing to tackle prejudice, discrimination, and hate crime.
Alison Logan of Glasgow City Council’ s Education Services spoke about the work her organisation was doing to help young people explore the choices they have in terms of how they relate to each other.
Gillian Forrester from Strathclyde Police’s Diversity Unit, acknowledged that Hate Crime remains significantly under-reported. The Unit had been involved in developing training; a Hate Crime tool-kit for officers and staff; an on-line reporting facility and Third Party Reporting Centres which can be contacted by disabled people who are worried about reactions and repercussions if they report incidents directly to the police.
It was imperative that the message gets out that the law has been changed so that Hate Crime, that is any assault or intimidating behaviour motivated by malice or ill-will against disabled people and other protected groups now carries tougher penalties.
Participants heard about the work that Inclusion Scotland is doing in partnership with others to raise awareness of Disability Hate Crime, tackle disability discrimination and influence policy at local and national level.
Finally, Paul Halloran of the National Union of Journalists insisted that as well as representing individual union members, his organisation had a responsibility for promoting good standards of journalism.
Paul said they had already had some success in addressing negative and stereotypical reporting of refugees and asylum seekers. They have also produced guidelines on positive reporting of mental health.
Paul urged all present to contact the NUJ for support in pursuing complaints against irresponsible and discriminatory reporting about and representations of disabled people in the media.
Participants reported that they found the event useful and informative and that they appreciated the opportunity to share experiences and opinions with others as well as meeting new people. Although there was clearly much to be done to overcome negative attitudes and behaviour towards disabled people, the message of the day was that change was possible.
As one participant said:
“It is early days but these are positive steps.”
1. Glasgow Disability Alliance is now one of several Third Party Reporting Centres throughout Scotland and can be contacted on 0141 556 7103.
2. For more information about Disability Hate Crime, Human and Equality Rights, see the Equality and Human Rights Commission Website at http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/scotland