The epidemic of hate crimes against the very vulnerable reveals a callousness at the heart of society

Published in the Daily Mail (September 22nd, 2010)

David Askew was a kind and trusting man who just wanted to enjoy his life. He smiled a lot, put other people first and, according to his elderly mother, was a true gentleman who never saw bad in anyone. But for more than a decade, this sweet-natured character had to endure a daily gauntlet of hate as he went about his life in Hattersley, Greater Manchester.

It was like bear-baiting, said one neighbour, as local teenagers screamed abuse, broke windows and harassed Mr Askew for his money and cigarettes. Eventually, one long day in March, it went too far and he collapsed and died, tormented to a lonely death.

This week, one of those teenagers who drove him to his death was convicted on minor charges of harassment and sentenced to just 16 weeks in a young offenders’ institution.

The 19-year-old lived just doors away, and had even gone on television to brag about how he was Mr Askew’s ‘protector’. But it is too easy just to shiver with disgust at this unpleasant youth, then turn the page.

For Mr Askew had learning difficulties. So he was different. He was weak. And now he is dead, the latest statistic in an epidemic of hate crime against the most vulnerable members of our society that should make us all pause for thought.

Every day, people with disabilities are attacked in their homes, spat on in the street and taunted in their towns. And every year, this torrent of abuse, bullying and torture ends with more and more names on the list of those who die in terrible circumstances simply because they are disabled.

Last year, a horrified nation was engulfed in outrage after the death of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter after years of abuse from neighbours.

Politicians, police chiefs and council officials all said ‘never again’, mouthing platitudes of concern once it emerged that she had complained to the authorities on 33 separate occasions. But little gets done to stop the tide of hatred and hostility.

Was the outrage synthetic or are we just a callous country when it comes to those less fortunate than ourselves, a brutal society with no sense of shame?

This week, a new report offered evidence of 68 violent deaths of disabled people – nearly one-third of them in the first seven months of this year alone – and more than 500 other potential disability hate crimes over the past three years alone.

Anne Novis, the report’s author and a wheelchair user, has herself been attacked several times.

In the most recent case she was shopping near her home in Greenwich, South-East London, when a man suddenly rammed his face in hers, screamed that she should have been killed at birth and started beating her.

The details of many of the killings of disabled people in recent years are sickening. The issue was first raised two years ago in a pioneering report called Getting Away With Murder which highlighted how one disabled man was disembowelled and another murdered for a £5 bet.

A woman was urinated on and filmed as she lay dying in a doorway, while a fourth victim was made to wear a dog-collar, treated like a slave for years then forced off a railway viaduct.

And even as the Manchester teenager was sentenced on Monday for his role in Mr Askew’s torment, a man was being charged just 30 miles away in Liverpool for the murder of Gary Skelly, a 53-year-old with learning difficulties who died from head injuries.

It is easy to blame a few vile yobs for these crimes. Too easy. Hate crime is merely the most extreme articulation of the prejudice that disabled people face each and every day.

They are the ultimate manifestation of a society that holds no place in its heart for people with disabilities, born out of fear for those who are different and a perverted idea of superiority. One killer even said: ‘I’m not going to jail for that muppet,’ underlining his disdain for his victim.

Are these attitudes surprising when a survey by the charity Scope found that a majority of Britons believe most people view those with disabilities as inferior?

Given this horrific finding, it is hardly surprising that people with disabilities find it so much harder to get jobs, are more likely to live in poverty and will be paid less and bullied more if they do find work.

Nor is it a shock to learn that nine out of ten people have never had a disabled person in their house for a social occasion and that four out of five people have never worked with someone who is disabled. Well, have you?

The truth is that disabled people are the ignored minority, left behind in the battle against bigotry. Racism and homophobia are, quite rightly, unacceptable these days.

But it still seems fine for Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, to make a bad taste joke about the Special Olympics on a popular talk show, for pop stars and Hollywood pin-ups to call each other ‘retards’ and for reality television shows like The X Factor to use people with learning difficulties as a prop to build their ratings.

When people with physical disabilities are figures of fun and mental incapacity is a term of abuse, is it any wonder that families turn away from my profoundly disabled daughter when she is out in the park?

And if those with learning difficulties are mocked by celebrities and excluded from society, is it any wonder that some inadequates treat them with fear and hostility? The drip-drip of desensitisation ultimately demeans us all.

These blinkered attitudes are reflected by the authorities when it comes to investigating hate crimes. The problem begins in school, where too many teachers tolerate the use of hateful words in the playground and fail to tackle attacks on disabled pupils.

For example, I’ve come across a story of a child having their wheelchair tampered with and another, who was epileptic, pushed over deliberately by a group of students who hoped it would give their victim a seizure – which they found amusing. In neither case were complaints taken seriously.

As for those who have been murdered, their abuse normally begins with the kind of petty anti-social behaviour that was so familiar to Mr Askew.

But again and again, the police and local authorities fail to take seriously the minor offences that make life a daily misery for thousands of disabled people, and then the problem spirals out of control.

Indeed, officialdom too regularly behaves like judges in rape trials from days gone by who blamed the victim.

So what happens all too often is that headteachers tell pupils to toughen up, the police frequently shrug off complaints as being a fact of life for those with disabilities, while local authorities often make the victims move home, not their assailants.

The Home Office does not even bother publishing data on hate crimes against the disabled, unlike crimes against some other minorities.

Although one helpline has reported a near-doubling in the number of calls from disabled victims in the past year, there have only been 576 prosecutions over the past two years, compared with 11,264 for racial and religious crimes over the past year alone.

Tellingly, 31 per cent of those prosecuted for disability hate crimes were acquitted, compared with 13 per cent of those accused of other crimes.

And what makes these hate crimes worse is that they are often so-called ‘mate’ crimes – carried out by supposed friends, neighbours or trusted carers, taking advantage of the victim’s vulnerability.

Again this week, a care home manager in Bristol was convicted of stealing nearly £70,000 from two pensioners with severe learning difficulties. The thief was not jailed, of course – the victims were only disabled people, after all.

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