I bought the ‘i’ yesterday because its front page caught my eye:
Not because I’m shocked by the statistic of a 34.4% increase in hate crimes against disabled people – anything but, as I’ve written about it a number of times on this blog – but because it’s still, even after the Paralympics, unusual to see a newspaper give such prominence to the issue.
I applaud the ‘i’ for being brave enough and concerned enough to put out a major front-page splash like this. I applaud them even more loudly for using 3 large pictures of disabled athletes, including one of Danny Crates with his bare stump on show. Before the Paralympics, disabled people have been virtually invisible in our media, and it’s good that a newspaper is following on where Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage and its ‘The Last Leg’ programme left off. Disability is nothing to be afraid of, or squeamish about, and the more used we all become to seeing disabled people featured prominently, the better.
The newspaper also devotes a full page inside to the issue, as well as a comment column by its executive editor. Both are gripping. Both are clearly well-intentioned. Both – unfortunately – miss the key point.
In the main article, social affairs correspondent Sarah Cassidy looks at the rise in disability hate crime and contrasts it with the shift in attitudes around the Paralympics. She quotes Seb Coe saying that the Games had shown “the world the way to treat people with disabilities“, quotes Scope saying that attitudes to disabled people “have deteriorated over recent years and many disabled people experience harassment, hostility and abuse on a regular basis“, and quotes Neil Coyle of Disability Rights UK saying that “the government must seize this opportunity to combat the rise in hostility disabled people are experiencing.”
She concludes by quoting Tom Madders of the National Autistic Society: “Disability hate crime destroys lives. Recent media articles labelling those who claim disability benefits as ‘scroungers’ have arguably contributed to increased resentment and abuse“, and noting that hate-crimes overall fell by 7.5% over the last year.
Executive Editor Stefano Hatfield’s comment column begins by saying that he believes the one hopeful aspect of the new statistics is that surely ‘this year will reflect a Paralympics-inspired drop in such barbarism.‘ He also says that some of the statistical rise is “attributable to greater confidence of victims coming forward” but that there is no hiding from a one-third rise year on year.‘
He goes on to ask “Who are the attackers? Are they the people on my 27 bus. Are they you, or me?“, before remembering his school days when it was considered normal to use hateful words about disabled people without knowing what they meant, let alone caring about what a disabled people felt. “But, attack a person for being disabled? We were ignorant, not Neanderthal.”
He ends his article by noting: “It is a smaller leap to hate crimes from bandying such words around than it would be if we all understood how dangerous apparently innocuous language can be.”
Again, not much to disagree with – except that I can’t see anything innocuous in the anti-disabled words he uses in his remembrances.
But both articles miss the main point. They don’t really ask what’s at the root of the increase, except to comment that calling disabled people ‘scroungers’ in the media ‘arguably’ (!) contributes to the problem.
But things don’t happen in a vacuum. People can be hateful, and can do hateful things. But the targets they choose for their hatefulness are going to be massively increased by social mores and prevailing cultural norms. So for there to have been such a steep rise in hate-crime against disabled people over the past 12 months, there has to be a corresponding reason that affects those mores and norms.
The right-wing media (which sadly, these days, more and more includes the BBC) bears massive culpability for the deterioration in attitudes toward disabled people that led up to the Paralympics. But they are following a political lead set by politicians who have been more than happy to use demonisation of various groups as a cheap way to win support from a section of our population – with disabled people among the most singled-out.
Until ‘i’ and other media start to put a spotlight on the fact that the government is not only failing to “combat the rise in hostility” against disabled people, but is in reality one of the main drivers of it, they will continue to miss the point – and to do both disabled people and any right-thinking person a disservice.
This government is not only passively guilty, but is the ringleader and chief sponsor of the factors that led to this shocking, sad and angering statistic – and for purely venal motives, as it seeks support for its financial assault on disabled people and other benefit-claimants so that it can cut taxes for its rich supporters. And this government won’t let the Paralympics change its course – it can’t afford to let us think differently about people with disabilities or any other of its target groups if it wants to achieve its financial and ideological ends.
I think Stefano Hatfield is right that the Paralympics can inspire a long-term change in attitudes to people with disabilities. But only if we continue to nurture the shoots, fan the flames, or whatever other metaphor you want to use for continuing where the Games left off and making sure we don’t put disabled people ‘out of sight and out of mind’ again – or allow the government to keep them in the public eye in the relentlessly negative way it wants to.
To do that, we need the rational among the media – and bloggers, commentators and anyone else who can influence others – bold enough to name and shame every politician, newspaper and anyone else whenever they try, however subtly, to turn public opinion against disabled people again.
In that context, I’d give ‘i’ an A+ for good intent and setting an example, but a B for execution.