A whirlwind of hatred against the disabled

Published in The Guardian (October 16th, 2010)

The details are sickening. For three days a gang of 18-year-olds tortured a younger autistic boy. They kicked him, stamped on his head, scraped his skin with sandpaper, pelted him with dog shit, forced him to drink alcohol until he passed out and stuck tape to his genitals.

The thugs laughed as they filmed themselves abusing their terrified victim, who can be heard whimpering for mercy. The ordeal only ended when his aunt saw a trainer print on his face. And why did they carry out these vile assaults? Simply because they were bored, they told a court this week.

Apparently Jonathan Geake, the so-called judge in the case, sympathised with their predicament. The three assailants were given just 80 hours’ unpaid community work and a three-month curfew. No signing of the sex offenders register, despite the sexual overtones to the attack. No jail sentence. No justice.

Mencap is now leading a campaign to persuade the attorney general to review this shocking case. But tragically it is not an isolated event. It is just the latest horror story in an epidemic of hate crimes against people with disabilities.

The statistics should shame us all. Nine out of 10 people with learning difficulties have suffered bullying or harassment – indeed, even as the thugs from Eccles were being convicted this week, cases emerged of a disabled woman being bottled as she arrived at her home in Essex and a Yorkshire woman tipped from her wheelchair and mugged. And there is at least one trial going on over the killing of a disabled person, with another looming.

Three years ago there was outrage after the death of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter after years of abuse. Politicians, police and council chiefs all said never again – then said it again after the death of David Askew earlier this year after similar harassment. Yet a recent report found evidence of 68 violent deaths of disabled people and more than 500 potential disability hate crimes over the past three years.

There is no official data on hate crimes against the disabled, since the government does not think it is worth publishing. One helpline has fielded a near-doubling in the number of calls from disabled victims this year, but there have been just 576 prosecutions over the last two years, compared with 11,264 for racial and religious crimes over the last year alone.

We need to wake up to this whirlwind of hate, driven by fear of difference and a symptom of a society that fails to embrace those with disabilities. Communities must look out for those in need of help. Teachers must stop tolerating hateful language and bullying. Police and council officials must tackle the low-level abuse that devastates life for so many – and, as in the Pilkington and Askew cases, can end up with a funeral.

We recognise the need to confront racist and homophobic abuse, but tolerate it against people with disabilities. Indeed, just as judges once told rape victims to cross their legs, teachers tell disabled pupils to toughen up, police tell people in wheelchairs that being abused is a fact of life, and local authorities move those who are harassed rather than their assailants. And in court, the evidence of people with learning difficulties is ignored: nearly three times as many prosecutions for disability hate crimes fail as compared with all other crimes.

In Manchester this weekend there are three sadistic young men swaggering around, no doubt still laughing, not least at how they escaped jail. And in another part of Britain their scarred victim is trying to rebuild his life, having being forced to move home as punishment for being tortured. Is this really the kind of country we want to live in?

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