Paul Dodenhoff BSc(Hons) MA Dip.App.SS is an Independent Researcher and Social Campaigner. For contact details see 'Bio'.
I've been writing for Disabled World for a number of months now, and I have touched upon this topic more than once. But there still seems to be confusion about whether recent negative government or media rhetoric directed towards disability benefit reforms and disability benefit fraud within the UK, are ultimately and directly responsible for the abuse, violence and harassment committed towards perceived disability.
So, to clarify this issue, I'll go over this topic once again, primarily this time from a Social Psychological perspective, and presenting the evidence currently available. Hopefully this will highlight that disability hate crime is a very complex area, and at the moment a relatively new area of research. Therefore, what we know for sure, is limited.
Does negative government or media rhetoric cause 'disability hate crime'
The short answer to the above question is no. It is unlikely that the negative rhetoric associated with recent disability welfare reform within the UK, particularly 'benefit fraud', is the sole cause of abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disability. And there is some very tentative evidence to suggest this.
However, the long answer is much more complex. Although negative Government rhetoric or negative media reporting of 'benefit fraud' may not be the 'real' underlying cause of disability hate crime within the UK, it will certainly not have made the problem any easier to eradicate. This is because negatively associating 'benefit fraud' to 'disability', will only help to maintain any social stigma that may already be attached to disability itself - a stigma that has been generated throughout the centuries of British social history.
The complexity of disability hate crime
Disability Hate Crime within the UK has been around a lot longer than the current British Government and will most likely be around long after this Government has gone. Arguably, disability hate crime will never go away unless we begin to actually understand what causes some people to commit acts of abuse, violence and harassment towards disabled people - and sorry, at the moment we haven't a clue.
All we have to go on at the moment is a very small number of studies and survey's concerning disability hate crime, and while important works in their own right, they tell us very little about the actual underlying motivation behind a perpetrators actions. So, all we can do is guess. And until we put in some real effort into finding out the underlying motivation behind abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated against disability - initially by investing in research and then into implementing solutions generated from that research, we will continue only to guess.
Disability hate crime is a very complex crime, and it is complex because disability also intersects with other things. Firstly, disability intersects with Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality and Gender. Secondly, disability hate crime may also intersect with the perceived 'vulnerability' of the victim, or the 'thrill seeking', 'status seeking' or 'self-interested' behavior of the perpetrator. However, untangling these strands are further complicated by the numerous social or cultural influences upon the 'bias and prejudice' that may have become attached to disability itself.
While improvements in the way we treat the disabled have undoubtedly been made within the UK, there is still a stigma attached to disability. It's a lingering stigma that may be the after effects of a combination of multiple events. A 'by-product' of the medicalization of physical and mental 'difference', a 'left over' from the institutionalization of disability, and the shameful 'freak shows' of the Victorian area, and a 'left over' from the even more shameful and insidious 'Eugenics Movement' of the early to mid-20th Century.
These 'events' of the past and the negative imaginary or language associated with these events, arguably still influence the bias and prejudice that 'feed' the attitudes and negative behavior displayed towards disability today.
Bias and Prejudice
As early as the 1950's, The Social Psychologist Gordon Allport, highlighted the actions that could be considered to be the actions of prejudice. Allport (1954) considered these to be:
"Antilocution - this is a form of hate language, including name calling and jokes. They may often be seen as 'harmless' and 'just having a laugh', but they may create a climate in which prejudice or bias may breed, and in which certain groups of people thereby become stereotyped, dehumanized or demonised.
"Avoidance - members of a dominant social group may actively avoid members of a marginalized group. Harm may not be intentional, but is often committed through the acts of isolation and exclusion.
"Discrimination - actively targeting marginalized individuals or groups and denying them opportunities to resources such as jobs, housing or education.
"Physical Attack -physical harm committed on members of marginalized individuals or groups, including violence and vandalism. Arguably, spitting, hair pulling or throwing stones at people may also be included.
"Extermination - the attempt to massacre entire groups of people.
Allport is arguably a very influential figure in the study of 'social conflict' involving different sections of society, and although Allport may not have had disability purely in mind when he developed the ' scale of prejudice' outlined above, this scale can most certainly be applied to the study of disability hate crime.
For Allport (1954) prejudice was an 'antipathy' expressed to members of social groups different from one's own, with the underlying assumption that individuals within groups may be comparing, contrasting and evaluating other groups. This is something that may arguably be seen in the actions of the 'abled bodied' towards the 'disabled', and expressed most visibly in the language used towards disability.
'People watching' and social conflict
I've spoken to many disabled people within recent years, and many of them have told me that as far as the language of abuse is concerned, the language of abuse has changed somewhat. People with a physical disability still get called all sorts of horrible names such as 'retard', 'spastic' or 'cripple', but are even more likely now to be called 'sponger', 'skiver', 'layabout', 'fake' and 'fraudster'. However, whatever terminology is used, the underlying motivation of the abuse may be the same - to compare and contrast the actions or behavior of the disabled with the actions or behavior of the able-bodied. Below is an example that I have taken from the UK press:
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."
(The Guardian 14 th August 2012)
The perpetrators of these actions can certainly be argued to have made a 'social evaluation' of the victim, and it's an evaluation of the victim partly based upon stereotypical notions, both of life in general but also of disability.
'Stereotypes' arguably get 'internalized' by people and are used as 'short-cuts' for understanding the social world. Therefore, the victim in the newspaper article above is considered to a fraud because they are not only seen to be in a wheelchair, but because they also appear to be young. The assumption is that they are therefore a 'fraud', primarily because being 'young' is stereotypically associated with good health and wellbeing. However, there is also the underlying assumption that the social provision of 'benefits' may have actually motivated this fraudulent behavior. These assumptions have to come from 'somewhere', whether we would like to admit this or not - and any 'Google' search will pull up similar newspaper stories with a same flavor.
However, we must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that the sole underlying motivation of this type of abuse has been caused by negative Government rhetoric or negative media reporting of 'benefit fraud' alone. We within the UK are all exposed to this type of rhetoric, but not all of us believe that the disabled are 'faking it', nor are we likely to verbally abuse people, or tip people out of wheelchairs because of it. If negative talk of 'benefit fraud' hadn't come into existence within the UK, then the disabled would still most likely be 'dehumanized' or 'demonised' by some individuals for something else, as they have indeed been 'dehumanized' or 'demonised' throughout British social history.
If we look at verbal abuse directed at people perceived to be mentally disabled, the 'sponger' or 'scrounger' label seems to be less employed by perpetrators, with most verbal abuse still revolving around the language of 'retard' and 'spastic'. In more recent times, the terms 'pedophile' or 'gay' also seem to have become a common form of verbal abuse, particularly directed at those with learning difficulties such as Asperger's syndrome. Below is an example of this taken from a recent study:
"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"
(Living in Fear, 2014 p53-54)
Again, the perpetrators have seemingly made an evaluation of the victim, and this time it is one of either of being 'gay' or of being a pedophile. Although, it's highly unlikely that the perpetrators in this case seriously thought that 'Ben' was actually a pedophile, or indeed 'gay'.
In many instances, victims of abuse are often acutely aware that although the language of abuse is 'accusatory' (i.e., being a 'fraud', 'skiver' or 'pedophile'), it is really the persons perceived 'disability' and perceived 'difference' that has actually motivated the attack. In short, the language of abuse may act as a 'cover story' or an 'excuse' for the real underlying reason of abuse, harassment or violence committed against a person considered to be disabled.
Having spoken to disabled people and having read numerous reports on the topic, many people consider that the abuse, harassment and violence committed towards them is primarily motivated by their perceived disability, and either because they are perceived to be 'different' from the perpetrator, or are perceived 'vulnerable' because of that 'difference'. While any abuse may be delivered with a number of abusive accusations and abusive language, ultimately it may the person' perceived 'difference' that drives the behavior against them.
It is a 'difference' that is not just based upon an evaluation of the victim, but also upon an evaluation of the victim's perceived identity or membership group, and one that may therefore be influenced by any negative 'stereotypical' traits that have become associated with that identity group over time.
That's why it is important that while we should not jump to conclusions about the effect of negative Government or media rhetoric concerning 'benefit fraud', we should also acknowledge that this type of talk may only compound the problem of 'hate' based upon 'difference'. As any negative link to disability, will surely contribute to the stigma already associated with being perceived as 'different' within society.
Drawing again on the work of Gordon Allport, Allport (1954) suggested that for any positive effects of intergroup contact to occur, four key conditions have to be met:
Arguably, contact with disability may motivate discriminatory behavior or 'hate', if any of these four key conditions for intergroup contact are perceived to be violated.
The violation of common social goals and social co-operation
If the disabled are perceived to be contravening the 'work ethic' or taking unfair advantage of 'welfare benefits', then the disabled may be perceived by some individuals within society as violating the 'common social goals' concerning 'work' that are perceived to be in place within society. They may also be perceived as violating the notion of 'social co-operation' - the notion that all sections of society should all contribute to the overall benefit of society or its national interest. If this is so, then according to Allport's four conditions above, we would expect some kind of social conflict to occur.
This conflict may also be initiated if the disabled are perceived as not having 'equal' status within society, or if that unequal status is perceived to be supported by 'authority' or 'tradition' of some kind. Certainly, Government rhetoric or it's dissemination of information over 'benefit fraud' may qualify as 'authority' - but additionally, throughout UK history the disabled have traditionally been viewed as unequal or of inferior social status. Therefore any violation of the conditions outlined by Allport above, may 'amplify' any negative difference that is perceived to already exist between the able-bodied and the disabled.
Social identity and 'difference'
Henri Tajfel in the 1970's became the first Social Psychologist to argue that the merest perception of another group's existence, may even be enough on its own to produce discrimination and prejudice. Therefore, Tajfel (1978) argued that all individuals develop a 'social identity', and where their personal 'self- esteem' is influenced to some extent by which social group they perceive themselves as belonging to - or are indeed perceived as belonging to. Therefore, in order to maintain their own self-esteem, individuals often perceive their own social group as being superior to others, and often assign negative 'stereotypical' characteristics to those social groups perceived as being 'different' from their own- thereby creating a 'them' and 'us'.
However, people do not just have one social identity, but are a complex 'blend' of identities - having a racial identity, an ethnic identity, an gender identity, an sexual identity, an religious identity and so on. Arguably, certain aspects of our identity may also be more important to us than others, and with some aspects of our identity also more important for those who may be evaluating and monitoring our social behavior for any kind of negative 'difference'. In terms of disability, many of the able bodied may see the perceived disability of an individual first, long before they see any other of that person's identity. Although, untangling all these strands of 'identity' is complex, and we should assume nothing is 'fact' at the moment.
Professor Barbara Perry also picked up upon the negative effect of being seen as 'different' within society, proposing the concept of 'doing difference' in her highly influential American study of Race, Religion, Sexuality and Gender - and how 'doing difference' may generate 'hate crime'. Drawing upon the work of Berk et al. (1992) to highlight the 'symbolic' nature of 'hate crime', Perry suggests that such crimes are not just acts of 'bias' and 'prejudice', but are indeed acts of 'people watching'. These crimes are therefore not just crimes that 'hurt' the victim in some way, but are orchestrated in order to also send out a loud 'social message' to the whole identity and membership group that the victim is perceived to belong (Perry 2001). The message sent, may therefore be considered to be in defense of the social boundaries that have historically been placed between different social groups, boundaries that place some people in a position of dominance over others.
As we saw above with the case of 'Ben', 'Ben' felt that the youths were trying to remove him from the local area. This can be interpreted in either two ways. Either the youths involved where 'defending' their local neighborhood from somebody they were actually fearful or wary of (i.e., somebody whose behavior seemed 'different' or 'weird' to them) or that they had indeed acknowledged 'Ben' as a mentally impaired person, and someone who would have traditionally been segregated from the community in the past. So, in short, the youths were re-asserting the social boundaries that 'Ben' is perceived to have violated.
It may be argued that the abled-bodied seem particularly obsessed with monitoring the disabled to see if they are 'over-stepping' the traditional social boundaries that may have historically existed between the able-bodied and the disabled. Or are indeed monitoring the disabled to see if they 'really' are disabled or just faking it in order to get 'benefits'. I've heard many stories from 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 could arguably be tied to notions of the 'work ethic' itself, and an persistent fear that some social groups may not be pulling their full weight within society, or displaying behavior detrimental to society.
Either way, it may be a fear that places strain upon social relationships, particularly relationships with those social groups that are already perceived to be 'different' in some way from the dominant majority. So, while negative political rhetoric or negative media reporting in the UK of 'benefit fraud' may not be the real underlying cause of 'hate' - we must also be careful not to give some individuals an extra excuse in order to 'do difference'.
As Katharine Quarmby, author of ' Scapegoat : Why We Are Failing Disabled People' argues below:
'... ..: "Unless the government decouples reducing benefits from hinting strongly that most disabled people are scroungers, then we're going to see more attacks.'
(The Guardian 14 th August 2012)
Has negative political or media rhetoric driven up 'hate crime'
In recent years within the UK, we have seen an intense campaign of political rhetoric and negative media reports concerning disability welfare fraud. Some people have argued that this negative 'rhetoric' is responsible for driving up 'hate crime' committed against perceived disability.
For example, in 2011, the Glasgow Media Trust released a report that concluded that the general public believed that between 50 and 70 per cent of those on disability benefits were indeed frauds. They also reported a huge increase in the use of words such as 'scrounger', 'cheat' and 'skiver' in tabloid papers stories linked to disability. Surveys undertaken by a number of disability charities also indicated that abuse, harassment and violence was something that many disabled people actually faced, and some on a repeat and daily basis. These surveys also indicated that 'hate crime' perpetrated against the disabled is often much higher than often officially recorded.
Indeed, 'The Crime and Disabled People Report ' released last year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found there were about 72,000 incidents of disability hate crime committed every year from 2007-08 to 2011-12 in England and Wales. Far higher than official government statistics have often reported. However, this report also highlights that this figure has remained pretty much constant since 2007-08, carrying with it the underlying assumption that the motivation of disability hate crime has not primarily been influenced to a great extent by either negative Government rhetoric or negative media reporting of 'benefit fraud'.
This report is therefore important to consider in any discussion of disability hate crime, as it finally recognizes that disability hate crime within Britain is indeed far higher than official statistics have previously recorded. Secondly, although that figure is high, it may not actually be increasing but has remained constant since 2007/2008. Finally, these figures carry with them the assumption that 'hate crime' may not have been influenced to a great extent by negative political rhetoric or negative media reporting of 'benefit fraud'.
However, while this report is arguably the best we have at the moment, we must also note that the report is not reporting actual figures, but 'estimates' only. Although this report should be taken as a good estimate of the numbers of disability hate crime committed within the UK, the report uses the annual Crime surveys of England and Wales, and also of Scotland to come to its conclusions. Crime surveys are based upon taking 'samples' of the population's experiences, but also may have high non-response rates. Therefore, this tool may not be sensitive enough to pick up on any real fluctuation in the rate of disability hate crime that may be influenced by negative political rhetoric or negative media reporting of 'benefit fraud'.
While this report is indeed the best we have so far, we still don't know anything as 'fact'. Unfortunately, we may never be able to find out for sure if negative political rhetoric or negative media reporting of 'benefit fraud' has actually had no effect on the rates of disability hate crime. The only thing we can be really sure of at the moment, is that disability hate crime is not getting any better.
Have attitudes towards the disabled improved
All indicator's suggest that negative behavior towards disabled people is no better than it was years ago, despite repeated arguments that attitudes towards disability are improving. If attitudes are indeed improving, then why are incidents of 'hate crime' not decreasing
I recently came across a Government report called "Paralympic data from the ONS opinions and lifestyle survey " . A DWP press release that introduces this report claims that: "Nearly 70% of the British public feel attitudes towards disabled people have improved since the London Paralympic Games in 2012, statistics published by the government reveal."
And that: "The findings from the DWP survey are from one of the most detailed surveys of its kind and marks the second anniversary of the Paralympic Games in London"
However, as a researcher investigating disability hate crime, I analyze all data released towards attitudes and hate crime against disability. I have read the report that the press release is based upon, and the press release is actually misleading.
Firstly, the survey cannot be argued to be the most detailed of its kind as regards disability, as the figures obtained are taken only from one simple question that had only 1,890 respondents - with the vast majority of them being abled-bodied respondents. Hardly a detailed study. Yet a BBC report (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28175349) announcing this new and detailed study, built it up even more so, claiming that 10,000 people had actually taken part in this survey (and therefore an inaccurate claim) so that the 70.7% result was truly good news, and reflective of society.
However, while the result obtained from this rather simplistic question was indeed 70.7% of the abled-bodied questioned, the figure obtained from disabled respondents themselves were far lower at only 56.1%. Hardly good news then, and illuminating that not all disabled people feel that attitudes towards them are positive at the moment.
That last point is indeed highlighted in the DWP report itself, where two highly comparable questions, one asked in 2013 and one asked in 2014 (a combined total of 10,000 respondents) indicate that positive attitudes of the abled-bodied towards the disabled have actually decreased by nearly 8% within 12 months. The report argues that these two sets of data should not be compared, but a trained researcher can assure people that these questions may be argued to be comparable, even though the 2014 question was indeed asked in a slightly different way from the one asked in 2013.
If positive attitudes towards the disabled are indeed getting worse as the above Government figures actually suggest, then this may explain why disability hate crime is not getting any better. However, we cannot just assume that negative political rhetoric or negative media reporting of 'benefit fraud' has actually caused disability hate crime within the UK.
Disability hate crime is a complex phenomenon, and perhaps more complex than 'hate crime' committed towards Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality or Gender. It may certainly contain unique features that 'hate crime' committed towards other social groups doesn't have. But the only fact for sure that we really know about disability hate crime within the UK, is that we have very little hard evidence to prove anything conclusively either way, at the moment. And until we are prepared to put money into solving the problem, that situation will remain.
However, 'disability' within the UK comes with a very strong social stigma attached, a stigma generated through many years of marginalization, domination and oppression. Until we eradicate that social stigma, any Government or media outlet intentionally or unintentionally associating disability with 'benefit fraud' will most likely make the problem worse, not better.
And to quote Katharine Quarmby again:
'... ..: "Unless the government decouples reducing benefits from hinting strongly that most disabled people are scroungers, then we're going to see more attacks."
Allport GW. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice
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.
Berk, R. A., Boyd, E. A., & Hamner, K. M. (1992). Thinking more clearly about hate-motivated crimes. In G. M. Herek & K. T. Berrill (Eds.). Hate crimes: Confronting violence against lesbians and gay men (pp. 123-146). London: Sage Publications.
Paralympic data from the ONS opinions and Life Style survey July 2014 - The Department of Works and Pensions www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/326220/opinions-survey-ad-hoc-paralympic-statistics-release-july-2014.pdf
Perry, Barbara. In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes. Routlege. New York. 2001
Tajfel, H. (Ed.) (1978) Differentiation Between Social Groups: Studies in the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. London: Academic Press.
The Crime and Disabled People Report (2013) - EHRC
The Glasgow Media Trust (2011)
The Guardian (14/08/2012)
Paul Dodenhoff BSc(Hons) MA Dip.App.SS is an Independent Researcher and Social Campaigner. For contact details see 'Bio'.