‘Disablism’: A Message

A couple of months ago, I watched a very powerful documentary about the rise of a very insidious mind-set, ‘Disablism’.

As a disabled person, I was of course aware of hate crimes against disabled people – I had even experienced this myself, even though it was a very minor incident.

Even so, I had – up until this point – never heard the word.

My experience occurred while I was attending a Disabled Members Conference for my union, UNISON, in Brighton.  Those of you that know me, know that I use a wheelchair.  I was walking with a friend to our hotel and as we walked past The Grand Hotel, there was a group of 3 children on the patio drinking and laughing.  As we passed, one of the kids threw a large paper cup filled with liquid, which missed me by mere inches. My friend, who is also disabled, walked to the concierge desk in the reception area and complained. The concierge went and threw the group out of the hotel.  The average age of the group was about 13 and it looked as though they had been drinking some alcohol.

I feel as though I am fairly laid back about stuff like this.  I was bullied as a kid for the normal sort of stuff: I was too tall, too heavy, not part of the IN crowd.

But I was not born disabled.  It is a progressive illness that has put me in a wheelchair.

Once the anger had passed following this incident, I found that I felt a bit frightened.  I knew I would not be able to really defend myself if it was a more dangerous situation… at least not without hurting myself.

Ironically, this incident came on the back of a debate at the conference about the rise of Disability Hate Crimes.

I heard with horror as one of the delegates who has cerebral palsy, which has affected him to the point of being in a wheelchair, barely able to speak, was taken from his wheelchair and duct taped to a streetlight pole.  It was cold and it was dark and it was some time before he was found and cut down.

This incident killed his independence.

I was saddened and quite frankly appalled. I would have been affected by just this one incident.  However, during this 20 minute debate, I heard 10 other horror stories.  Some of these stories were historic, but many were relatively recent.

It took me back to when I was in high school, we had a group of students who were being mainstreamed in our school.  One of the kids was named Pete.  He was a very happy, social young man of 16 who was born with Downs Syndrome.  Pete was big into hugs, and he had a tendency to follow you around to see if he could help you do whatever it was that you were up to that day.  Well, to make a long story short.  Pete was one of the sweetest human beings, a joy to be around.  One day, the football captain decided he didn’t want Pete to follow him around.  He felt he was just a pest.  So the day that Pete came in with a new jacket, which he was very proud of, this popular kid took Pete with his new jacket, spray painted him and shoved him into his school locker.

This destroyed Pete.  He went home with his new jacket ruined and never came back to school.  He was too afraid and didn’t understand why this had happened.

I will never forget that incident.  Nor will I forget the day that group of people threw a drink at me just because I was in a wheelchair.

This is ‘disablism’ and it is just as wrong as racism and sexism, or domestic violence – and it can be just as deadly.

The incidents range from a group of kids laughing and making jokes about someone with a disability, discrimination in employment or when receiving a service, to a man with mental health and learning difficulties being set on fire and burning to death.

Why is there a rise in ‘Disablism’?

Well, in my humble opinion, it has to do with the continuous attacks by the media on those with disabilities. Calling us scroungers and lazy – wastrels undeserving of help who are a burden on society for accessing the social services we need to live an independent life.

It is not choice. We need these payments and services because it often costs more for us to live a normal life.

I believe that having TV stations label us as “Undateable”, or feature us on inflammatory programming, such as ‘Benefits Britain’, has allowed us to be turned into second class citizens and an easy target for derision and benefit cuts.

Between the media and the Department of Work and Pensions, we have become a group its “okay” to abuse.

When we are attacked, and we have the courage to report it to the police, the punishments for crimes committed against us actually incur penalties less than those who commit crimes which are racially motivated.  Where a person could be given a 3 year sentence for a racial crime, one against a disabled person might be as low as 6 months unless the legal representative knows to ask for an uplift to the sentence.  Some never ask!

We have been mocked, made disabled by the unjust environment around us and vilified by the Government.

This is ‘disablism’ and it needs to be fought against, just as other forms of hate crime are fought against.

My message is simple:  ‘Disablism’ isn’t right and it needs to stop. NOW.

Cllr Kathy Bole

Vice-Chair of the Suffolk Coalition of Disabled People

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