Monday, September 19, 2011

Hate crimes: We have to speak up

A number of bloggers wrote recently about the death of Gemma Hayter (above), a 27-year-old British woman with intellectual disability who was tortured and beaten to death last year by five youth she considered 'friends.'

Disability hate crime begins with verbal abuse

Can the word retard kill? This murder might convince you

Seeds at Schulyer's Monster:

Gemma Hayter's case is a stark reminder that the seeds of societal disregard for persons with developmental disabilities ultimately manifest in abuse, in violence and in death and heartbreak and deep sorrow. If you choose to look, to really SEE, you can follow the line from jokes about "retards" in film and television and the stages of comedy clubs to the young people repeating them on the schoolyards, and you can watch those kids grow into young adults and observe them as they live their lives without empathy or compassion for those who have never had value or humanity in their eyes. Small steps, leading inexorably to a moment where killing a living, thinking, feeling human being might be difficult enough to give them pause, but doing harm to a worthless retard, just for laughs? What's wrong with that? How is the world diminished by a loss like that?

I came across this article written a year ago in the Daily Mail by Katharine Quarmby, the first British journalist to investigate disability-related hate crime. Her book Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People was just published:

Cast Adrift, The Lonely Victims of Mate Crimes
By Katharine Quarmby

I became aware of a disturbing pattern four years ago when I was news editor of the magazine Disability Now.

During the previous year – 2006 – eight disabled people were robbed, beaten and brutally killed in a period of just six months, yet each death was seen by police, prosecutors and the media as an isolated incident, a motiveless crime against a vulnerable ¬ victim who couldn’t fight back.

I began to investigate such crimes and discovered that the incidents weren’t isolated and the crimes weren’t motiveless – they were committed out of hatred, rather than because the victims were vulnerable.

Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her daughter Francecca Hardwick after years of abuse from bullies.

There are so many cases: Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter Francecca after suffering years of verbal and physical abuse from youths; Christine Lakinski, who collapsed near her own front door but was covered in shaving foam and urinated upon as she lay dying; Brent Martin, who was punched and kicked to death by a gang of youths ‘for sport’, in the words of a prosecutor.

My research, which eventually led to a book, Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People, suggests that, although this is a problem with ancient roots, failures in the implementation of modern ‘community care’ policy are also to blame.

The lack of money to fund disabled people’s resettlement was one problem; another was the failure to anticipate the bitter backlash that would ensue. For disabled people had been maliciously stereotyped for at least 2,000 years as either scapegoats, sinners or freaks.

By Victorian times, disabled people were so shunned that many, particularly those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties, were imprisoned in asylums or long-stay hospitals. By the mid-Fifties, the number of disabled people who had been institutionalised had reached a peak of 150,000.

These institutions were, almost without exception, awful places where people with learning difficulties were treated with profound inhumanity.

Then a number of well-publicised scandals in the Sixties brought pressure to bear on the Government to start closing the institutions down.

In 1971, the White Paper, Better Services For The Mentally Handicapped, kick-started the community care initiative, pushing for at least half of those in hospitals to be living in the community by 1990. A similar White Paper, Better Services For The Mentally Ill, was published in 1975 by the Labour Government.

Community care was the right thing to do. But the way in which it was carried out failed the very people it was supposed to help.

Between 1955 and 1975, about 80,000 people left the asylums. But their need for medication, accommodation and support was not met. Community care was done on the cheap.

As early as 1985, a Social Services Select Committee report warned that hospital closures had outrun provision in the community. Even worse, a small number of killings by people with mental health problems sparked a fearful and angry reaction by the general public.

Jean Collins, a campaigner from the charity Values into Action, observed that the closures were characterised by ‘chaos and confusion’.

No one had prepared people with learning difficulties for life outside institutions. They were pauperised too, she said, adding: ‘Many were abandoned in a hostile, fearful society.’

Most were resettled in houses that nobody else wanted, on estates where nobody wanted to live. Many became socially isolated. And it wasn’t long before they were targeted.

Many, particularly people with learning difficulties, were desperate for friendship and were befriended by people who groomed them, robbed them, attacked them and killed them – so-called ‘mate crimes’, a recognised subset of hate crime.

Prejudice against disabled people had only grown stronger because so many had been shut away for centuries. Disability hate crime should have been a tragedy foretold.

But it wasn’t. Such crimes will carry on until we face our own prejudices about disability – and, as a society, start to change.

You may want to follow Quarmby's Disability Hate Crime Network on Facebook.

Today, Bonnie at the Fragile X Files writes about attending Partners in Policymaking, a state program that trains people to advocate for government programs for people with disabilities.

There was a detailed and lengthy account of how people with disabilities have been treated and viewed throughout history. Horrifying stories of torture, abuse, neglect, exploitation, misunderstanding, and disrespect. Nearly every example from history was followed by a recent news story showing us how the very same types of treatment and abuse and misunderstanding occur today.

She begins her blog by describing what is too often the reaction of most of us to these horrors:

You know how when there's a story on the news about a child or a person with a disability being abused or injured or killed, and you tend to turn away or turn it off altogether, because it is just too disturbing and you'd rather not hear it?

It's time to listen and speak up.