Synopsis: In this article Paul Dodenhoff looks at oppression and disability hate crime in the United Kingdom.
Paul Dodenhoff is a PhD research student at Lancaster University, Law School UK. This essay/article is written in a personal capacity. However, anybody wishing to support the research in any way, have an input into the research or be able to sponsor the research, may contact the author via the following email address: email@example.com.
Crime arising from the hostility of the perpetrator towards the disability, or perceived disability, of the victim, or because of their perceived connection to disability.
In 1990, Iris Marion Young put forward an analysis and model of 'oppression' that many social groups suffer, breaking the concept of 'oppression' down into its component parts of Oppression, Exploitation, Marginalization, Cultural Imperialism and Violence. This model may be extremely useful for analyzing 'hate crime' that both physically and mentally impaired people may face on a daily basis within the UK.
Many charities and organizations often talk about the discrimination, abuse, harassment and violence that disabled people suffer as a result of negative 'attitudes'. While it is certainly understandable to use the concept of 'attitudes' as a general catchall for the motivation behind abusive and violent behavior committed against disability, any policy making and campaigns driven by a focus solely on 'attitudes' and changing 'attitudes', may do very little in changing actual negative 'behavior' such as discrimination and 'hate crime'. There are a number of key reasons for making that statement.
Firstly, while surveys and polls are good for getting an overall snapshot of a society and its most dominant opinions, beliefs or feelings towards certain things, 'stated' attitudes towards physical or mental disability may not always be a good or reliable predictor of behavior. This is partly because the relationship between attitudes and behavior is a complex one, and where a large number of variables may negatively impact upon that relationship. This is particularly illuminated by the fact that attitudes towards disability have often been argued to have been improving (as a direct interpretation of conducted surveys and polls). In reality, discrimination, abusive or violent behavior perpetrated towards disability is arguably no better than it was an hundred years ago.
Secondly, what feeds into an individual's beliefs, opinions, value judgments and feelings about disability may come from a variety of areas and sources, such as socialization processes, peer group, western medical and scientific discourse, political ideology or popular media.
Finally, behavior may not always be influenced by beliefs and opinions alone, but in combination with additional factors, such as personal need and self-interest, fear, boredom, peer pressure and opportunity. Indeed some studies of 'hate crime' committed towards race, religion and sexuality have continually highlighted that abuse, harassment and violence may be triggered on occasion by relatively minor events such as 'boredom', 'thrill seeking' or 'peer pressure' - particularly when those factors intersect with the perceived 'vulnerability' of the victim. This has led some researchers to argue that 'hate crime' may not even be about prejudice at all.
Therefore, 'hate crime' is a highly complex area and the 'occasional' program developed to try to change attitudes towards disability, while laudable, may be the equivalent of trying to keep a million plates up in the air spinning all at the same time - as soon as you take your eye off some, they will come crashing down. There are far too many influences on attitudes and far too many influences on behavior that each potential factor may need to be considered separately from one another, in order to develop effective policy.
Additionally, when charities or organizations talk about the need to change negative 'attitudes', what they are actually talking about is the need to change negative social behavior, and behavior that can more accurately be considered to be a form of social oppression.
Disability and Oppression
Using the term 'oppression' to describe the daily reality of disabled people may be considered by some as too strong an expression or an misleading one, downplaying the political achievements that many disability organizations and charities have undoubtedly worked hard for.
However, as Young (1990) highlights, the word 'oppression' may have been used in the past by social campaigners to highlight injustice at the 'macro' level of western politics, social policy or medical policy, but it can also be used to highlight the continuing injustice and disadvantage that often originates at the 'micro' level of life, within the actual social practices and social interactions that take place between ordinary people themselves.
Therefore, the term 'oppression' may be useful for illuminating social injustice and disadvantage that is deeply embedded and ingrained within society's most dominant social norms, values, habits and assumptions, that people draw upon within their daily social interactions with each other. These social influences may be so deeply ingrained within society, that they may be extremely hard to change by simply changing a law or introducing new ones, and may generally be resisted or contested by those whose motivation may be one of self-interest, mistrust or even fear.
To put this more succinctly, past social history and past patterns of social behavior help to guide, inform and 'normalize' the behavior and the mistreatment of 'oppressed' groups today, and this mistreatment occurs daily at the level of human interaction. Injustice is not the preserve of vast and ancient social institutions, but originates from the intentions and unintentional behavior of ordinary people themselves, both inside and outside those institutions.
Understanding the complex relationship between 'attitudes' and 'behavior' is arguably difficult, however, if we don't fully understand the social processes in which negative behavior towards disability may originate, then how can we truly develop policy or devise social campaigns around something that we don't fully understand
Therefore, a call for attitude change may be too simplistic an approach, for how can we actually alter the beliefs, opinions and assumptions that individuals hold, when the source of these 'attitudes' come from a complex variety and mix of areas.
However, using Young's (1990) 'face faces of oppression' model, we may be able to illuminate a little better, some of the complex social processes and general unquestioning of beliefs, opinions and assumptions, that individuals may employ on a daily basis, and within their social interactions with each other.
The Five faces of Oppression
Young (1990) considered that the concept of 'Oppression' could be broken down into five individual elements:
By using this model to discuss the injustice and disadvantage that disabled generally have to put up within the UK on a daily basis, we may see how social history of the past, may feed into the social interactions of the present.
The concept of 'oppression' used in this context, can be described as stemming from the intentional or unintentional behavior of people that reduce the potential for other's to be fully human, or to put it another way, actions and behavior that may make people feel 'less' human.
However, this isn't just about behavior that treats disabled people in a dehumanizing way, it also concerns the denial of assess to education, housing or employment, and access to other opportunities that may help the disabled to become fully human in both mind and body. For example, if disabled people are denied access not only to opportunities due to the discriminatory practices of potential employers or landlords, but access to public spaces where they may be targeted for ridicule, abuse, harassment and violence, then they are not free to pursue their interests or plans, and may be made to feel less than 'human'.
While Young's analysis is primarily within the Marxist tradition, the concept of exploitation may certainly be used to analyze the interactions and situations that some disabled people may come to find themselves involved in. For example, Pam Thomas (2011) uses the term 'mate crime' to illuminate actions perpetrated against disabled people by relatives or those considered to be friends to the victim. 'Mate crime' may be considered similar to domestic violence, which may not only contain acts of cruelty, humiliation and violence, but also acts of exploitation and theft.
Marginalization may be described as the confining or positioning of a social group of people to a lower social standing, and one that may also confine them to the edges of society itself. It is a process of exclusion that effectively positions certain groups as not only 'inferior' within society, but also makes that group largely 'invisible' within society.
Discrimination over employment may be one way in which the disabled become marginalized within society, behavior largely hidden behind closed doors and therefore we may have no real idea about the numbers of disabled people who may apply for jobs and not be selected solely because of their impairment. Previous research indicates that such discrimination does exist, and there is no reason to believe that this situation has significantly altered within recent times.
Marginalization may therefore expel whole blocks of disabled people from full participation in social life, which may not only create a situation of helplessness and powerlessness, but also a culture in which the disabled not only become 'invisible', but may be expected to be invisible and remain invisible by the able-bodied.
Marginalization may also be one way in which the disabled are 'indoctrinated' with negative images about themselves, and another way in which they become 'dehumanized' within society. Garland-Thomson (2011) argues that an 'ability/disability' system operates within western society that actively constructs disability and inequality by the ideological comparison and the differentiation of 'body's'.
To put it more simply, the medical and scientific comparison of 'body's', including appearance, ability and IQ, not only mark out physical or psychological difference, but become authoritative works that are drawn upon to medically or socially monitor and control physical or mental difference. It is through such discourse that beliefs and assumptions are produced and disseminated throughout popular culture.
Similarly, Shakespeare (1994) argues that disabled people have become `objectified' by such cultural representations of disability within society, and are often treated as 'objects' rather than people. As an example, Shakespeare cites the 'freak-shows' of yesteryear that portrayed disabled people as 'freaks of nature', 'animal like' or 'non-human'. Arguably, western medical practice may also objectify and dehumanize the disabled, either intentionally or unintentionally, by the investigation, monitoring and labelling of deviations from the 'norm' of physical or mental ability.
It is through such imagery and social practice that help to marginalize and exclude the disabled from mainstream life. It is interesting to note that sports-people with a physical or mental impairment are often described in the media not purely as athletes like any other, but often as 'superhuman' athletes. However, using 'comic book' imagery like this, may conjure up thoughts of 'heroic mutants', that may still (intentionally or unintentionally) mirror the 'freaks of nature' theme of yesteryear.
Cultural Imperialism involves taking the culture of the dominant groups within society and establishing it as the norm. While the disabled make up a significant proportion of the UK population, the disabled are generally considered as being deviant from the expected norms and established standards or measures of ability that are set in place via scientific and medical discourse. These norms and expectations of 'ability' feed into all walks of life, and are displayed daily within our interactions with others.
However, such norms and expectations of ability, create hierarchies of superiority and inferiority that can have disastrous consequences for anybody considered to have a physical or mental impairment. We only have to look throughout history to see the dangers of taking such thoughts of 'normality' and 'deviancy' to an extreme - from the segregation of mental impairment or illness into residential institutions, and the rise of the 'Eugenics' movement, both within the early twentieth century.
Another form of this extremism and one conducted at the 'micro' level of human interaction is violence.
Violence is probably the most obvious and visible form of oppression. Many disabled people live with the knowledge and fear of random, unprovoked attacks on their person or property. These attacks do not necessarily need a motive stemming from negative 'attitudes', but are 'behaviors' intended to humiliate, damage and in some cases, destroy the person.
There may be many reasons why violence is used against disabled people. Certainly, beliefs, opinions and values may play some role within such actions, but it is far too simplistic to say that holding negative attitudes towards disability is the sole cause. Not everybody holding negative attitudes towards race, sexuality, religion or gender is motivated to actually commit acts of violence towards those social groups, and there is no reason to believe why this should be any different concerning disability.
However, as we have seen with the killing of Solder Lee Rigby by Islamic extremists in London 2013, which is thought to have provoked a huge surge of anti-Muslim 'hate crime', such horrific events may indeed give some individuals an excuse to act out negative beliefs and attitudes that they may hold. Similarly, political rhetoric and negative media reporting of 'disability benefit fraud' are thought to have contributed to a rise in 'hate crime' committed towards people with a perceived disability.
Therefore, holding negative attitudes towards religion or disability may certainly contribute to the conditions that motivate abuse or violence, when triggered by an event of some kind. However, discrimination, prejudice and violence towards both social groups stretch back a lot further than public concern over Islamic extremism or benefit fraud.
So why? This is the question my current research is designed to answer, and there is a strong initial indication that my research may do so. At the very least it should move academic thinking along considerably, and is therefore important to carry this project through to the finish.
However, I have come up against a great deal of resistance to my project and/or complete disinterest in my project from those who I fully expected to be interested at least into the aims of the research. Surprisingly, not only have I met resistance and disinterest from both local authorities and national government, but also from all of the major disability charities and organizations themselves within the UK. Which is rather peculiar considering the interest and concern that all these institutions and organizations say they have concerning disability hate crime. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions over why this may be the case.
However, projects like mine cannot exist without some kind of moral support and sponsorship in order to continue such important investigation and work. While I understand that the current economic climate may play a part in the reluctance to sponsor such work, but what is the explanation for the disinterest and general apathy that local and national government or the major disability charities and organizations have shown towards research like mine
I'm just wondering how many other important social projects have been slowed down or halted purely over lack of interest, funding and sponsorship, from those who could help if they really wanted to and not because they can't.
Garland-Thomson, R. 'Integrating disability, transforming feminist theory' P13-p47, in 'Feminist Disability Studies' (2011), Indiana university press.
Shakespeare. T. (1994): Cultural Representation of Disabled People: Dustbins for Disavowal, Disability & Society, 9:3, 283-299
Thomas, P. (2011) 'Mate Crime': Ridicule, hostility and targeted attacks against disabled people. Disability & Society, Vol 26, No 1 (Jan 2011) p107 -111. Routledge.
Young, Iris Marion. 1990. "Justice and the politics of difference". Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press.