The Continuing Demonization of Disability - Ignorance or Incitement
Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff writes on the continuing demonization of disability - ignorance or incitement.1
Author: Paul Dodenhoff Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
At the latter end of last year, a report issued by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in Britain reported that convictions for 'hate crimes' committed against disabled people had dropped compared to previous years. While there was much angst displayed by the CPS over this disturbing news, particularly in light of the fact that conviction rates of 'hate' committed towards other social groups were in contrast, generally on the rise - at present there also seems to have been little investigation into this phenomena.
The CPS report is a highly significant one, considering that Britain's newspapers often report a massive increase in disability hate crime recorded by the authorities - up by more than 200% in some regions. However, we shouldn't really be that surprised if the CPS or the British Courts are reluctant to actually prosecute or convict the perpetrator of 'hate' committed towards disability, as such inactivity may only mirror the prejudice that motivates such incidents in the first place. Traditionally, 'hate crime' committed towards disability may have not been considered a serious issue within the political spare, nor by the police or by the criminal justice system - certainly not as serious as 'hate' perpetrated towards other social groups. And there is good reason to suggest this.
Firstly, official statistics on 'hate' have consistently underestimated the numbers of incidents of abuse, harassment and violence committed towards the disabled, incidents that are motivated primarily by the perceived 'identity' of being disabled. Therefore, 'hate crimes' perpetrated against race and religion have tended to dominate the political agenda, primarily because these crimes have consistently been amongst the highest number of 'hate crimes' recorded by the authorities. Race and religion are also highly sensitive subject areas within politics, and were many are keen to be seen to be keeping public law and order issues connected to race or religion strictly under control, particularly in consideration of Britain's social history of racial tension or race riots.
However, Britain has been spectacularly backward in fighting the exact same abuses, harassment and violence that are equally displayed towards other social groups, including the disabled, gay people and women. It is a 'slowness' that borders very much on reluctance, a reluctance to accept the fact that that abuse, harassment and violence displayed towards the disabled, gay people and women are not only motivated sometimes by prejudice, but are an extension of the beliefs, attitudes and values that are often considered by many within British society to be part of 'normality' and of 'normal' life. Therefore, the disabled are worthless because they are often perceived as being not able to 'work' or are generally considered to be unemployable because they are 'defective' in some way, women are on this planet solely for the entertainment of men or having babies, and gay people are weird because they partake in 'unnatural' acts that may also upset 'god', whoever god may be. An acknowledgment of such prevalent negative attitudes and associated behavior would undoubtedly highlight that not only is there something seriously amiss with large sections of 'modern' British society, but also with many of its most dominant beliefs and social practices that many consider to be part of traditional British culture - particularly those beliefs surrounding employment, work ethic, femininity and masculinity.
Therefore, effectively ignoring even the most blatant displays of prejudice within society perpetrated towards social groups such as the disabled, gay people and women, not only help downplay the actual seriousness of these issues, but also help to reproduce a society where men, heterosexual people and the able-bodied are more valued within society than women, gay people and the disabled. A value that has its roots in the notion that all these other social groups are somehow 'deviant', 'defective' or at least, 'inferior' versions of humanity.
Secondly, when we actually look at the laws currently in place for dealing with 'hate' motivated by bias and prejudice, they have an 'air' about them that illustrates Britain's continuing 'two tiered' approach to prejudice. Because under British law not all social groups are actually treated the same, nor are they afforded the same consideration of seriousness of the abuse, violence or harassment that may committed towards them, purely because of their perceived identity as being disabled, gay or female.
At present, if a person commits a crime motivated by the victim's race or religion, they get a tougher punishment than for a similar crime without the motivation of prejudice behind it. However, if a crime is committed against the disabled that is on a par with those committed towards race or religion, the perpetrator may get an extended sentence if the judge presiding over the case decides so. It is therefore left to the judge whether or not to apply the extended sentence, and more often than not, the judge does not implement this section of the law.
This two tiered attitude to bias and prejudice becomes even more glaring if a parallel crime is perpetrated towards women, as these crimes are not treated as 'hate crimes' motivated by prejudice at all, but in many cases often classified simply (and downgraded) as 'domestic' violence. This is important because it completely ignores the fact that negative attitudes and prejudice towards women within society can very much be a motivating factor in cases of abuse, harassment and sexual violence.
In most cases of convictions concerning disability hate crime, the extended sentence is rarely used, meaning that in reality, abuse, harassment or violence committed towards disability does not always merit the same seriousness nor sentencing of the crime as 'hate' motivated by race or religion. Unfortunately, this also not only helps to normalize or condone abuse and violence that is often displayed towards disability, but also gives free reign to the presiding judge's personal opinions, beliefs and prejudices.
Perhaps one reason why conviction rates for disability hate crime are so low within the UK is that deeply rooted attitudes, notions and prejudices surrounding disability may bubble up to the surface at any time, at every available opportunity and throughout every walk of society. Therefore, the only way around this is to make laws that are precise, clear and not open to any sort of human interpretation or misinterpretation. At present we even split 'hate crimes' against the disabled into two categories, 'incidents' and 'crimes', where the former is generally seen as just a social disorder issue. However, in reality, both categories may contain behaviors that are actually breaking a law of one kind or another too, but are not actually being considered as 'crime' nor prosecuted as 'crime' for various reasons.
Thirdly, many acts of bias and prejudice displayed towards the disabled are often brushed aside as mere displays of 'ignorance'. But can we really ignore the fact that not only is a whole section of society being 'randomly' targeted for abuse, harassment and violence by certain members of the general public, but a section of society that has also within recent years been consistently and deliberately targeted by sections of the political establishment and the British media for being benefit cheats and fraudsters. It is a form of cynical political scapegoating aimed not only at diverting attention away from the real underlying causes of social and financial problems within the UK, but actions that are akin to pouring petrol on fire.
There is no doubt in my mind that the present Government with the help of the British media, have made life more intolerable for most disabled people, not only by the implementation of extremely harsh welfare changes, but by the consistent use of negative rhetoric that links disability to fraud or lack of work ethic. Most certainly, this type of cynical campaigning has primarily been to manipulate public opinion into supporting widespread welfare benefit reform, while intentionally or unintentionally forcing disabled people off benefits and into accepting low paid labor - no matter what their health condition may be or their actual chances of obtaining or maintaining such employment.
It may be considered perfectly acceptable behavior by our political elite to play games with people's emotions and fears in order to get them to support one political idea or another. However, the consequences of these particular actions have been the deaths of many disabled people, deaths that have occurred after welfare payments have been withdrawn, deaths caused by worsening health conditions or in some cases, disabled people being driven to suicide.
In addition, disabled people consistently complain that they have been targeted by members of the public for being perceived as benefit frauds or scroungers. At present this is a highly contentious issue. Hate crime perpetrated against disability has been around for a very long time, so negative political or media rhetoric cannot be said to have 'caused' hate crime alone. However, that is not to say that some incidents of 'hate' may have been motivated by negative media articles or political comment on disability welfare and benefit fraud. All we know at the moment is that no statistical evidence has been gathered as yet to draw a positive link between negative political or media rhetoric concerning welfare reform and disability hate crime. However, much anecdotal evidence exists to support the claims and there is enough statistical evidence to suggest that negative rhetoric surrounding disability has indeed increased within British newspapers, and most particularly since this current government was elected in 2010.
However, Government has naturally been keen to downplay any connection between negative rhetoric and negative media campaigns surrounding welfare fraud with disability hate crime. Perhaps, one reason for this is that any direct statistical link between negative rhetoric and 'hate' perpetrated against the disabled opens up both the government and the media to accusations of incitement to violence. It is quite easy to trace a link between negative political rhetoric concerning benefit fraud and subsequent governmental policy change, so any hard evidence that also suggests a link between such rhetoric and disability hate crime itself would certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons.
The Law Commission together with The CPS has within recent times considered extending the laws concerning 'hate crime' to eradicate any anomalies in the way the disabled are treated under law (after much lobbying by various disability organizations). However, despite the fact that these proposals would have treated 'hate crime' committed towards disability as equally serious as 'hate' committed towards race and religion, they were rejected as largely being 'unnecessary'. This is spite of the fact that even the UK government admits that its official recording of disability hate crime statistics has been woefully inaccurate in the past, and with a government estimate now putting crimes committed against the disabled at around 60,000 per year - which is a far higher figure than crimes presently recorded by the authorities as being committed towards race and religion combined.
This 60,000 estimate is also likely to be on the low side, as many disability charities suggest significant numbers of the disabled surveyed by them consistently complain of abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated against them. When we take into consideration that approximately 10 million disabled people (5 million of working age) reside in Britain, even a 60,000 estimate will surely be found out to be also wildly inaccurate at some point in the future - with some organizations currently stating 100,000 to be a more realistic estimate.
At present, individuals can be prosecuted under British law for inciting violence against race and religion, but not against any other social group. But shouldn't there be? Everyday within the UK we are still being bombarded with political and media rhetoric that specifically paints many of the disabled as spongers, layabouts and frauds. It is no surprise then that some members of the British public also scapegoat the disabled in a similar fashion. It highlights that not only is there a continuing problem within the UK as regards the way the disabled are 'demonised' within society, but with incitement to violence that often masquerades as British politics or free speech.
Until we get a responsible, grown up and a less self-interested attitude by our political elite and their media supporters as regards the use of negative rhetoric in public concerning disability, how can we ever expect a similar attitude to develop in the wider world? At some point we will need to take a long hard look at ourselves and decide whether we can always get away with the notion that words and actions of 'hatred' are purely down to ignorance alone.
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