Disability hate crime and three wishes for our Paralympic legacy
Compare and contrast the cheering crowds that lauded our Paralympian medal winners with the focus group research, carried out recently by the Glasgow Media Group, that found that a representative sample of the British population believes that between half and three-quarters of all disability benefit claimants are scroungers. Another contrast is our new poster girl Ellie Simmonds against the highest-ever number of hate crimes recorded against disabled people this year.
Like many commentators on disability, I have been struggling to make sense of these contrasts over the last few glorious weeks. We went as a family to the men’s wheelchair basketball team final on Saturday and my son, who is not disabled, asked me whether he could join a wheelchair basketball team. He’s not the only one to have embraced Paralympic sport. A recent Channel 4 poll found that two-thirds of the people agreed that the extensive coverage had had a positive effect on their attitudes towards disabled people and disability sport. While 80% agreed that disabled athletes are as talented as non-disabled athletes.
That’s the good news but I do question whether this positivity is a bounce and will be sustained over time. If you look at shifting attitudes towards disability in a number of other polls the news is not so good. The excellent campaign run by the mental health alliance, Time to Change shows a 1.3% improvement in public attitudes towards mental health from 2009-2010. That’s great but it’s slow and incremental change and the campaign is now fighting its corner at a time when parts of the media have launched a concerted campaign against disabled people’s right to claim benefits. In turn, this media campaign then causes a backlash against certain groups, particularly those with invisible disabilities, such as mental health conditions.
Other polls reveal a much grimmer picture than the Channel 4 survey. A poll of 1,000 members of the public in 2010, by the social care organisation Turning Point, found that nearly a quarter believed that disabled people should live in institutions and one third that they could not live independently or work. Two recent polls by the charity Scope have also borne out a far more negative view of disabled Britons.
I think there are historical reasons for this as well as present day reasons. I found during research for my book Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, in which I investigated violence against disabled people, that the roots of that violence often lay in the past. Since classical times onwards disabled people have been seen as cursed or as carrying a stigma. They were singled out as scapegoats to be punished for the common good, something that chimes with many disabled people today as they read newspaper headlines excoriating their number as ‘fakers’ and ‘scroungers’.
Later the world religions, particularly Christianity, demonised disabled people with theologians such as Martin Luther popularising the belief that disabled people were possessed by the devil or had sinned. Then there were the Victorian freak shows. Later of course disabled people were seen as ‘life unworthy of life’ by Hitler and his henchmen in the run-up to the Holocaust, when disabled children and adults were killed in the T4 Euthanasia Programme. Nazi attitudes were inspired by British and American thinkers and political leaders, many of whom supported eugenics, believing that disabled people were a burden to society and should not reproduce. That history hangs heavily over the 21st Century, with our drive to reduce the number of disabled babies, our questioning of the right of disabled people to have children and our endless debate about assisted suicide, which many disabled people see as another attack on their right to life.
Therefore, my first wish for the legacy of the Paralympics is that we confront the historical roots of our attitudes towards disability. If we do not understand where our attitudes come from we will never be able to reform ourselves or indeedthe perpetrators of hate crime, who take those attitudes to their logical end and attack disabled people.
My second wish is for the present. I’ve written elsewhere about the poison of some of the media reporting of the crackdown on disability benefit. I’d like to know more about the role of special advisors, civil servants and ministers in briefing the media. Many disabled people’s organisations wanted Lord Leveson to investigate this and call witnesses. He failed to do so. Therefore, I wish for a parliamentary committee to investigate these links as a matter of urgency.
My third wish is for our common future. Over 100 years ago the writer GK Chesterton called the fake science of eugenics ‘no better than poison’. I’d like our political and religious leaders to play their part in draining the poison of hatred, fear and contempt for disabled people from our public lives. Our Prime Minister could make a start by apologising for the pernicious rhetoric in the media that has engulfed his benefits crackdown. He needs to decouple benefits cuts from a general feeling that all disabled people are on the take before somebody gets attacked in the street. For me, that would be a legacy worth having.Tagged in: channel 4, disability, disability hate crime, Ellie Simmonds, eugenics, games, nazi, paralympics
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