I recently became involved in a debate about disability hate crime, giving my opinion (for what it's worth) on the key characteristics surrounding a number of high profile cases that had occurred within the UK over recent years. It was only an informal chat between interested parties, but considering the lack of current 'academic' interest in hate crime committed against those with a perceived disability, intelligent discussion around the topic is perhaps the best we can offer at the moment. So, for the purposes of promoting debate about the characteristics of disability hate crime, here is an outline of the things I highlighted.
Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.
Case study 1- Louise
' When I was eight my mum gave me up to foster care. I had an assessment a few years later which said 'you have moderate learning difficulties'. That's the category they gave me. After 10 years with my foster family, I went to a special boarding college then into supported housing. I eventually moved to Torquay, which is where the attack happened.
I visited a friend one day and there were these homeless people there, one of whom was called Karl. They told me they didn't have anywhere to live, so I let them stay in my house share for £50 a fortnight. One afternoon we all had a drink at the house of a woman called Maryanne, who had been going out with Karl. He asked me if she was cheating on him. I said yes. I was telling the truth, but she denied it. Both of them kept shouting at me 'you're lying, you're lying'. Everyone was egging on everyone else to throw in the first punch. Then Maryanne lunged at me, got her stiletto and hit me in the face. I tried to get away but they wouldn't let me. They kept punching and kicking me.
Then I was frog-marched to a house next door, where I was held hostage again. They locked the doors and shut all the curtains. Karl was standing near the door giving orders of what to do to me. I can still see myself sat in that room. I was beaten with saucepans and plates. They dumped a big plant pot over my head. They broke my nose. They cut me with a kitchen knife behind my ear and on my arm. One of them tried to strangle me.
When the case eventually came to court, I went along for the verdict. All I heard was each person's name and the years they got each, and I thought, 'Yes, I've won this one'. Since the attack, I think to myself all the time 'why me' Is it because I'm kind-hearted or because I'm vulnerable? I don't like meeting new people now. I feel uncomfortable. I have nightmares.'
Although this is a very brief outline of a real case, a number of themes quickly emerge from the reading, themes that often mirror other cases of 'hate' perpetrated towards those with disabilities - particularly those with mental impairment.
Firstly, we can pick out a clear 'exploitation' of the victim, of being taken advantage of by letting the perpetrators live in her home, something that some people would regard as 'mate crime' . Secondly, we can pick out a pattern of 'domination' , together with violence initiated primarily by the 'accusation' of lying. Accusations of the wayward behavior of the disabled are quite common characteristics of disability hate crime, and may therefore be an attempt to actually 'legitimate' or 'justify'' any subsequent abuse, harassment and violence committed towards that person.
Thirdly, we can see an attempt to 'incarcerate' the person, mirroring historical patterns of segregating the disabled from society, and perhaps a subconscious attempt to also physically 'control' disability. Finally we get the impression that the perpetrators are actually enjoying and getting a 'thrill' out of their brutal actions, with Louise being used for sadistic 'entertainment' . Historically, the disabled have also been used for 'entertainment' within British society, particularly signified by the 'freak shows' of Victorian Britain. Additionally, by 'positioning' themselves in a dominant position over Louise, the perpetrators are also briefly and temporarily boosting their own social standing within the social world.
We should also note the long term psychological effects that such abuse often brings to the victim, effects that are often ignored or downplayed by society. This in itself may be a way of intentionally or unintentionally normalizing or abuse, harassment and violence towards disability, with the implication that the disabled actually 'deserve' the treatment they receive from society. However, sometimes the dreadful psychological effects of long term abuse and harassment are just too much for some to handle.
Case Study 2 - Fiona Pilkington.
For anybody unfamiliar with this tragic case, Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her 18-year-old disabled daughter in October 2007 after her family suffered many years of targeted abuse, harassment and violence. Like the first case study, themes emerge that are also seen in other cases of disability hate crime. Here is what one newspaper reported:
"Pam Cassell, Miss Pilkington's mother, told the inquest the same youths were responsible for all the abuse. They would also urinate in the garden and throw stones and eggs at the house, the inquest heard. Mrs Cassell said: 'It was Halloween and firework night coming up and Fiona was dreading them because she knew that the children would start throwing things at the house and start putting fireworks through the letter box. They would start on Fiona and throw things and then go round the back and do things in the garden. It was always the same group of youths. 'Sometimes they would go round the side of the house and urinate. 'They used to ring on the doorbell and say that she had been hitting her kids. They were petty things like that. 'They used to throw stones at the house and then they threw acorns and flour and eggs. 'Frankie was frustrated because she couldn't go out in the garden without being tormented or teased. We used to take her to the park and take her out in the rain because she used to love jumping in puddles. 'Frankie could be genuinely lovable but when she was frustrated she used to pull hair and bite and punch because she couldn't do what she wanted to do.' Mrs Cassell added that the gang, which often numbered 16, would torment Francecca and her brother before they went to bed. They would throw stones at the window and try and get her to lift up her nightdress.' The abuse began when Miss Pilkington's dyslexic son Anthony, 19, fell out with a child who lived on the same street in Barwell, Leicestershire, when he was just eight. In one incident, Anthony was marched at knife-point into a shed."
Firstly, similar to the study involving Louise, we can pick out themes of domination, as well as themes of incarceration, imprisonment or siege-like behavior. Again these mirror historical patterns of segregating or controlling disability. Secondly, we can see the attempted exploitation of Francecca. Thirdly, we have false accusations targeted against Fiona, which again often lead to threats of or acts of violent behavior. Finally, we also get the impression again that the youths are using this family as a form of 'entertainment', with youths often coming from different districts just to join in.
However, another theme emerges in this horrific case of abuse and harassment - acts of 'urination' . There is very little academic thinking on why human beings resort to such behavior in this social context - but 'urination' is becoming increasing common in relation to violence perpetrated by males, and in particular, abuse and violence that make up disability hate crime.
In the animal world, urination is chiefly a messaging or signaling system, and certainly we may detect a very crude social message being communicated by those youths towards the family in this case - that Fiona's family was not welcome within the local community. These 'messages' ultimately result from the 'social monitoring' of the disabled, a process that again mirrors historical patterns of segregation and the social or medical control of the disabled within the UK. In the not so distant past, the disabled and the abled-bodied were kept well apart.
Case Study 3 - Chantelle
' It was karaoke night at the Weaver's Arms when Chantelle Richardson was attacked by a stranger because of her disability. The 23-year-old, whose face has been disfigured since she was 14, had already left one pub that night after comments about her condition. Now drinking with mates at her local in Oldham, it happened again. "Is your friend wearing a mask" said the woman who'd just stopped singing as one of Richardson's pals approached the mike. "Your friend's face is disgusting." The woman repeatedly told Richardson: "Take off your mask," before punching her in the face. The blow was so strong it could have been fatal and left Richardson hospitalized for weeks. For months, she was depressed and afraid to go out in public. Her attacker, brought to court in March last year, was sentenced to eight months in prison'.
Although this is a very brief description of the incident, it is still illuminating. Again, we can see 'accusations' leveled at the victim, accusations that also precede violence. These crude accusations also carry the implication that because Chantelle is perceived to be ugly, she should not be seen out in public. Whatever the true intent of comments like those leveled at Chantelle, ultimately they may also have the very real effect of segregating the disabled from the able bodied - as disabled people often avoid going out or avoid public places where abuse and violence may become more predictable.
Unfortunately, society seems to becoming increasingly intolerant of disability, particularly of those with a physical impairment. Again, incidents of abuse and violence are littered with accusations about the behavior or morality of the disabled, and in a fairly recent development, we often witness the disabled widely accused as being 'fakes' or 'spongers'.
Case Study 4 - Emma
Emma Round, 28. In 2009, nerves in Round's abdominal cavity became badly damaged, making walking extremely painful. Unable to leave the house without help, she became effectively trapped for nine months until a doctor decided to give her a wheelchair. The change revolutionized her independence, but also made her a target of abuse. Sitting outside a local shop not long after getting her wheelchair, she was approached by a well-dressed stranger. "He lent over, looked me in the eye and said, 'It's a good scam. Someone your age shouldn't be in a wheelchair ... You're just doing it for the benefits, aren't you? Scum.' Then he walked off. I just sat there crying," Round says. That incident was not a one off. "Since then I've been called lazy frequently and had people grab my wheelchair and tell me to get out and walk. I've been called a scrounger, a sponger, a faker and other words you wouldn't be able to put in print."
Hate crime perpetrated against the disabled has been around for a very long time. However, it is important that 'new' prejudices are not created either by Britain's government or the British media. While the 'benefit fraud' angle has undoubtedly been picked up primarily from both negative government and media rhetoric surrounding the disabled and welfare, this has only added to the accusatory behavior that the disabled often get thrown at them. If it wasn't accusations of being a 'fake' or a 'scrounger' , there would still be accusations of being of being a 'burden' , of being 'ugly' or of being a 'loony' .
While this article is a simple discussion of 'hate', there are many key themes discussed here which can be used to make sense of crime that often seems to be quite senseless. In most cases of 'hate' committed towards mental impairment, we often see acts of domination, exploitation and incarceration. In cases against physical impairment, we still see similar patterns of domination and incarceration, but expressed in a slightly different manner.
In short, the past heavily influences the present. The segregation, control or exploitation of the disabled hundreds of years ago within the UK, still visibly influence the attitudes and behavior of the abled-bodied today. Additionally, there is a misunderstanding and 'fear' surrounding disability that compound the thoughts and feelings that the able-bodied hold about the disabled.
We should remember that the disabled were primarily invisible within British society until the 1980's. Therefore, it should come as no real surprise that the able-bodied intentionally or unintentionally still seek to 'remove' disability from society. Perhaps, what we don't see or think about, we won't worry about
Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.