The Complexity of Hate: Learning Disability, Autism, Asperger's

Author: Paul Dodenhoff
Published: 2014/08/18 - Updated: 2021/06/06
Contents: Summary - Main - Related Publications

Synopsis: Hate crime committed against perceived mental disability - by Paul Dodenhoff, a PhD research student at Lancaster University, Law School UK.

Main Digest

In response to my recent article "The complexity of hate - Disability hate crime within the UK" (Disabled World 12/08/2104). I've been asked if I had seen a study published concerning 'disability hate crime' committed towards Learning disability, Autism and Asperger's called 'Living in Fear'.

For anybody interested in downloading this report, the full title is: Beadle-Brown, J., Richardson, L., Guest, C., Malovic, A., Bradshaw, J and Himmerich, J. (2014). Living in Fear: Better Outcomes for people with learning disabilities and autism. Main research report. Canterbury: Tizard Center, University of Kent. It is a 184 page document which is perhaps one of the most in-depth studies concerning 'hate crime' committed towards perceived mental disability in recent times.

I have read this document and it is a fantastic piece of work, primarily of a series of surveys, interviews and focus group meetings with people with learning difficulties, Autism and Asperger's, and of surveys, interviews and focus group meetings with families, carers and the police. There is a tremendous amount of information contained within the document, although its remit is mainly to gather data and information outlining the features of disability hate crime, rather than trying to build a theoretical, explanatory model of the motivation underlying disability hate crime.

This is not a criticism by the way, as the report is highly illuminating and an important piece of work, but the aim of the study is primarily to gather data and information. This document is a great resource for me at this moment in time too, and one by which I can compare my own thoughts and feelings about 'hate crime', and a document in which I can certainly try to put my own 'interpretation' on, if that will be of interest or of use to anybody.

Firstly, let me briefly describe the report. Within the UK, most people with an identified 'learning disability' live either in the family home or with support in their own home or a community based service. This report is primarily focused upon a project undertaken to explore this, within a specific area of the UK - Medway Unitary Authority. The report itself on page 14-15 outlines it aims as exploring:

In addition to the above, the research is aimed at describing:

While the sample base of the study isn't large, the methodology is well thought out and considered. The study in fact builds upon a previous online survey run by the National Autistic Society of nearly 800 people, where over 80% of people surveyed reported that they had experienced verbal abuse, and just under half had reported some kind of physical assault. Just under a quarter, additionally had experienced cyber bullying and just under 30% had experienced exploitation, theft or fraud.

The Characteristics of 'Hate Crime' Against Perceived Mental Disability

The types of experiences recorded by the victim, or by their relative or carer are documented below:

As we can see, the list is rather long and depressing.

The victims tended to be predominantly male, described as White British, aged anything from 16 upwards and for many, these experiences began with bullying in childhood, and some experiencing repeated incidents over weeks, months or years, as adults. Interestingly, a majority of such cases termed 'victimization' in the report, were perpetrated against those who had been identified with the 'condition' Asperger's - a condition that is said to produce various difficulties with social interaction, social communication and flexibility of thinking or imagination. In addition to these perceived difficulties, there may be also sensory, motor and organizational difficulties.

The perpetrators of these crimes tend to be adults as well as children or teenagers, mainly boys but also girls, some were strangers to the victim but most where not, and some were also reported to be neighbors, friends and relatives.

The location of incidents covered many different places:

The Underlying Motivation of 'Hate'

The social psychologist Gordon Allport, as early as the 1950's was interested in 'bias and prejudice' and conflict between different social groups, and developed a 'scale of prejudice' that could be applied in the analysis of such behavior. Beginning with Antilocution (hate language or jokes aimed at dehumanizing, demonising or stereotyping an individual or community) and moving onto Avoidance , Discrimination , Physical Attack and finally, Extermination - all behavior that could be classified as motivated by some kind of bias or prejudice.

It was Allport who also made the initial distinction between 'Anger' and 'Hate'. For Allport, anger is a transitory and temporary emotion generally aroused by the blocking or thwarting of an activity, particularly one that may have been potentially rewarding. While 'Hate' is not regarded by Allport as an emotion at all, but considered to be more enduring set of habitual aggressive impulses, bitter feelings or accusatory thought(s) that may be directed towards an individual or group (Allport 1954).

These habitual impulses are subsequently directed towards those individuals and groups that are considered to be 'out-group' members - people who are considered to be 'different' in some way from the majority of society. It is impulses that are also largely seen as being 'deviant', arising from the 'faulty' or 'pathological' psychology of the perpetrator themselves.

However, researchers working in the field of 'hate crime' committed against Race, Ethnicity, Religion and Sexuality, generally regard the term 'hate crime' as a misnomer, where 'hate' is considered not to be an actual motivator of the crime. This is because abuse, harassment and violence classed as 'hate crime' tends to predominantly opportunistic and transitory in nature, and often triggered by relatively minor events.

It is therefore considered quite rare to find actual extremists and bigots as the perpetrators of 'hate crime', instead it is rather the preserve of seemingly 'ordinary' and 'normal' people - which speaks volumes about the society we live within. Therefore, if we applied Allport's definition of 'hate' to the study of 'hate crime', this would certainly contradict most theories, as well as (misleadingly) marking out the majority of perpetrators of 'hate crime' as being bigots or extremists who habitually seek out their victims. That is partly why 'hate' is not considered to play a role within 'hate crime'.

Despite the cruel and horrible experiences outlined above, many of the victims interviewed (as well as carers and police) also do not consider the motivation behind these incidents to be 'hate', and felt generally that the word 'hate' was often too 'strong' a word to use when applied to the actions committed against them.

Most people (including victims, carers and police) felt that many of the incidents above were actually motivated by some kind of perceived 'difference' of the victim, a difference that wasn't due to any kind of physical characteristics or physical features of the victim, but a 'difference' that was picked up from either their appearance or behavior.

Sometimes this behavioral difference was argued to have been caused by mistaken assumptions about the victim, were perpetrators believe that the person is a drug taker or a drunk, particularly if the victim has had a seizure and are found lying on the floor. Or if the victim appeared to be 'abrupt or 'rude' within day to day interaction with other people.

Some victims and carers feel that the victims may also be considered to be 'vulnerable' and therefore an easy target for the perpetrator. Here are a couple of quotes taken from the report:

'...find out their weaknesses and then use them and deviously manipulate them, get their money off them, get their food out of their freezer'.

'...he's quite vulnerable... he doesn't think "well I'll stick my wallet in my pocket and leave it", he'll sit there and he'll thumb through his wallet while he's on the bus and this guy had watched this, came into the [local shopping center] he had seven kinds of everything kicked out of him'.

Victims definitely thought they were being targeted due to their perceived learning disability, particularly if they were considered 'vulnerable' because of it, or if the perpetrators were just bored and out for 'laughs'. Interestingly, some people considered that the perpetrators of the incidents and crimes themselves, were also 'vulnerable' people in some way, a vulnerability that partly motivated their actions.

Therefore, 'vulnerability' is argued to be a motivator or partial motivator of abuse, harassment, violence and theft. The concept of 'vulnerability' when applied to 'hate crime' may also be considered as another way of saying that the victim displays (publicly) one or any number of perceived physical, psychological or social 'weaknesses' - weaknesses often signified by perceived 'differences' in appearance or social behavior. It is a 'vulnerability' that is particularly targeted if the victim is on their own, although people will still suffer overt abuse in the form of comments, jokes and micky taking, even if surrounded by friends, relatives or carers (although these incidents may stay on that scale, rather than escalating into other more sinister incidents).

Personally, I don't like the word 'vulnerability' being used within 'disability hate crime', because it may end up placing part of the blame of abuse, theft, harassment or violence upon the victim themselves, with the underlying assumption that it is the behavior of the victim and the perceived 'weaknesses' of the victim that has motivated the 'trouble' in the first place. The assumption is that if the victim changed their behavior somehow or weren't 'weak', then they would not be vulnerable and therefore less prone to abuse.

However, this is almost akin to blaming women who get raped while walking alone through a park, or for wearing a short skirt, as 'asking for it'. While this is an admittedly difficult subject area to address, I worry that the concept of 'vulnerability' may undermine the fact that in most cases concerning 'hate crime' committed towards perceived mental impairment, it is the actual actions and behavior of the perpetrator that is wrong, not the victims.

Most incidents committed towards perceived mental impairment are predominantly unprovoked, in many cases they are not just cruel, opportunistic and transitory crimes, but may become targeted and repetitive actions that are sometimes used as a means to an end (for exploitation and theft). They are often quickly initiated, seemingly when the victim becomes first 'noticeable' or 'visible' within the community, and targeted because they may appear to behave 'differently' than what is regarded as 'normal'. If 'vulnerability' exists, then as a society we construct that vulnerability ourselves by our culture, by our beliefs, by our actions, by our inactions and by our inability to solve the problem of 'hate'.

It is the perceived 'deviant' behavior of the victim that makes them a socially legitimated target for abuse, exploitation and violence within society. This comes across most strongly in the report, where the victim's social behavior is perceived to have violated the accepted or traditional social norms of behavior and interaction, triggering abuse or violence. Ben (case study 1, page 53-54) is a good example of this.

"Ben has Asperger syndrome and lives alone... Difficulties began one day when youths living nearby shouted at him using terms such as 'pedophile' and 'gay'. They were objecting to him looking out of his window overlooking an area where children played. Objects were thrown at his window. Sometimes the verbal abuse and harassment continued when he left the flat or saw the youth's streets away when he was walking to and from the shops. Teenagers and youths would follow him and call out 'There's that weirdo guy, he's gay' and 'there's that gay man who looks out the window'. When the harassment and verbal abuse continued even though he avoided looking out of his window, he felt that it had become a campaign about his living there. He recognized some teenagers who were from another road who had become involved in the harassment"

Initially, Ben's behavior of looking out of his window is perceived to have triggered false accusations of him being a 'pedophile'. Whether, these youths had genuine and serious concerns about this is unknown, although it is highly likely that they very quickly picked up upon Ben's social behavior as a sign of mental impairment or of some kind of mental illness, and decided to have some 'fun' with it. The only thing that is certain, is that Ben got quickly and repeatedly targeted by the youths, almost to the point of a witch hunt. As Karen Quarmby (2012) argues in her book 'Scapegoat ', people with perceived mental impairments often get targeted with false accusations of sexual abuse, deviancy and pedophilia, and usually for all manner of reasons.

In terms of Allport's distinction between 'anger' and 'hate', the abuse that 'Ben' received was not transitory at all nor a one off incident, so may be considered to be driven less by 'anger' and more by 'hate' - if 'hate' is indeed to be defined as an enduring set of habitual aggressive impulses, bitter feelings or accusatory thought. At the very least, the abuse that 'Ben' received was definitely aggressive and accusatory, as it was habitual.

In research that focuses upon 'hate crime' committed towards Race, Ethnicity, Religion and Sexuality, the majority of these crimes are certainly not seen as generally habitual and repetitive crimes, but ones that are highly opportunistic and mainly transitory. However, since I began my research into disability hate crime, there seems to be a different pattern surrounding disability, particularly 'hate crime' committed against perceived mental impairment and 'learning difficulties' such as Asperger's. A pattern that while starting out initially as opportunistic and triggered by something often 'trivial', developed into the something that is not dissimilar to Allport's definition of 'Hate'.

It may be argued that the perpetrators in 'Ben's' case were perhaps just 'bored' or indeed 'only having a laugh', so that the pedophile claims were weak 'excuses' in order to launch a cruel campaign against a man thought to be 'disabled'. The fact that the abuse was intense, sustained and repetitive, indicates that something more sinister than 'having a laugh' was actually going on here. Maybe, these teenagers mistakenly believed that they were protecting their community, or were indeed fearful of the man - so were trying to 'remove' him from the community. 'Ben' certainly felt that the youths were trying to remove him from the community.

I have analyzed a number of British NHS surveys conducted on attitudes towards mental health issues over the years, and a higher proportion of younger people consistently tend to be more fearful or more cautious of those who are considered to have mental health problems, than older people. And this tends to be higher for males than females, for any age group. Arguably, many people may confuse mental impairment such as Autism and Asperger's with mental health problems, and therefore are fearful when they witness behavior that seems 'unusual' to them.

Whatever, whether or not the incidents outlined above were initially triggered by something trivial such as 'Ben' looking out of his window, interpretation of the 'day to day' behavior of other people and within social interaction with others, is something that we do all the time. Nobody really teaches us to do most of this, we pick things up along the way from various sources, in which we use as models for our own social behavior and for interpreting the behavior of others. Then we put our own spin on things depending upon our own experiences, beliefs, values, desires or fears.

'Ben's' behavior of looking out of his window seemed to have been instantly interpreted as the actions of a potential pedophile, weirdo or because he was gay - not because he was perhaps just bored, unhappy or lonely. At the very least, it was arguably perceived as not being part of 'normal' day to day behavior.

However, the most illuminating part of this story is that none of the teenagers involved actually seemed to view their own subsequent actions and behavior as being strange, odd or weird, despite obviously being fixated and obsessed by the man that they repeatedly targeted him, followed him around, abused him, called him names and harassed him. Most certainly during this time, word would have circulated throughout the local neighborhood that this man was probably considered to be a 'vulnerable' person. If that is so, the only assumption one can make about the actions of these youths is that they considered their behavior to be perfectly appropriate and acceptable.

Arguably, the actions of the teenagers involved are actions that can be considered to be acts of 'domination', 'marginalization' and 'oppression'. Motivated not only by 'Ben's' perceived 'weakness' as a disabled man and one therefore perceived as not capable of defending himself from any kind of abuse (as a 'normal' man perhaps would) but motivated also by Ben's 'inferior' social status as a mentally disabled person. Therefore, not just easy prey but someone who should be removed and locked away from the community (as many would have been within the UK up until the 1980's). The actions of the youths may therefore be considered to be 'defensive' actions, actions that may be perceived to be protecting the traditional social boundaries that have existed between the abled-bodied and the disabled for many years.

It's both a lack of understanding about disability and an indication of how disability, particularly mental impairment is effectively viewed within society today - something that is still largely to be ridiculed, feared or removed. But it is also perhaps an indication of a UK society that is in serious disarray, with many social problems and issues that are not being addressed. This is a theme that is also touched upon by people interviewed in the report:

"I remember moving the people out of Leybourne okay and all of that and looking back now that's over twenty years ago and to be fair um why should people have to wait to be accepted..."

' I think yes the Police should be supporting disability, people with a disability, but I don't think it's just about Police being informed, I think it's a wider issue'.

'...I think it's ignorant people, people who should know better and I personally think they're damaged people and they look at vulnerable young people as a way of making, they attack them cause it makes them feel better cause they don't have any power themselves y'know they're small anyway and insignificant, so they do it to make themselves feel big"

' Sadly we're in a society that does not celebrate difference... that is supported by media'.

' In the last couple of years there's been a vicious campaign by the media sort of treating everyone with a disability as a sponger... and people are becoming less tolerant... it's actually made the situation worse for our youngsters'.

'...all the time there are programs like Little Britain actively, completely and utterly take the piss out of people with learning disabilities and it's fine, it's funny, it won't go away'

The final three quotes are perhaps the most perceptive. Hundreds of years ago, physical and mental disability was to be feared, ridiculed, removed or controlled for, and those behaviors are still arguably deep-rooted within the British psyche. However, hundreds of years ago, those behaviors could perhaps be excused as being committed through ignorance, but what excuse can be used to pardon our behavior today. There is enough information out there about disability, and with so many young people also having access to computers and the internet, there is perhaps little excuse now for ignorance.

So, if it's not purely about ignorance, what is it? The crunch of the matter for me revolves around how we 'value' disabled people within the western world. Arguably within western society all people are regarded predominantly as potential 'workers', solely put upon this earth to either generate wealth for themselves (by creating jobs) or for other people (by working for those who create jobs). Hence, the historical and continuing British obsession with 'work ethic', and with 'not working'.

The marginalization of disabled people has many causes, but one that can perhaps be viewed as partially beginning with the industrial revolution in the 1700's, with the move from cottage industry to factory production, where large numbers of disabled people were subsequently denied access to these new types of jobs, and with many becoming dependent on charity because of it. This image of the disabled as not having an 'function' within society is still perhaps a dominant misconception today, with the view that most disabled people are 'dependent' in some shape or form, especially economically.

The abled-bodied seem particularly obsessed with monitoring the disabled to see if they are 'really' disabled or just faking it. I've heard many stories of physically disabled people being accused of faking disability, if they are seen as being able to get out of wheelchairs unaided or happen to move their legs while sat in a wheelchair. It's a fear of 'faking it' that is arguably tied to the 'work ethic', and an persistent fear that some social groups may not be pulling their full weight within society, or are perceived as receiving preferential treatment of some kind. Either way, it may be a fear that places strain upon social relationships within society, particularly relationships with those social groups that are perceived to be 'different' in some way from the dominant majority.

It is this social monitoring of individuals and groups that may also partially generate ridicule towards mental impairment. In a society where everybody seems to be striving for perfection or continual improvement, 'getting on' and moving up the hierarchical ladder, we may need some individuals below us on that hierarchical ladder in order to make the necessary comparison with (especially if our progress up that ladder seems slow or hindered). As the person in the report argues:

"...they attack them cause it makes them feel better cause they don't have any power themselves y'know, they're small anyway and insignificant, so they do it to make themselves feel big"


Other articles by Paul Dodenhoff in this series relating to disability hate crime include:

Author Credentials:

British born Paul Dodenhoff, is a regular contributor of UK disability related news and content. Paul has always taken an interest in disability issues, and writes for Disabled-World trying to highlight issues that don't always get a great deal of attention from Britain's popular media. Paul Dodenhoff completed a part-time Open University Bachelor of Science degree in Social Problems, Health and Social Welfare; graduating at the Guild Hall, Preston, United Kingdom. He also gained a part-time Master of Arts degree in Research Methodology in 2003 with the Open University; graduating at the UNESCO headquarters, Paris. Explore Paul's complete biography for comprehensive insights into his background, expertise, and accomplishments.

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Cite This Page (APA): Dodenhoff, P. (2014, August 18). The Complexity of Hate: Learning Disability, Autism, Asperger's. Disabled World. Retrieved April 16, 2024 from

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