Truths we must face up to

Kira Cochrane is outraged by the bullying of the disabled

Itend not to have much time for those hell-in-a-handcart folk who claim society is worse than it's ever been, that we've lost our values, are beset by crime, are slowly turning "feral". My suspicion has always been - while more explicit news reporting might have upped our fears - that society doesn't change that much in its basic balance of cruelty and kindness.

Recently, though, a string of crimes has almost made me believe we are, indeed, going to the dogs. Bullying and violence against the disabled seems to have reached such horrific levels that claims of our turning feral no longer sound so far-fetched. Take the case of Christine Lakinski, a 50-year-old with a spine deformity, who had suffered bullying throughout her life. Back in July, Lakinski fell over and lay dying in the street near her house - at which point she might have expected help from her neighbours. Instead, Anthony Anderson, 27, emerged from his house and was joined by friends.He first kicked Lakinski and then urinated on her.

Then there was the case of Fiona Ann Pilkington, 38, whose daughter, Francesca Hardwick, 18, had severe learning disabilities. Two weeks ago, Pilkington is thought to have murdered her daughter and killed herself by setting fire to the car they were in, after they suffered a sustained campaign of abuse from local children. (She had complained about this repeatedly to the police.) The harassment apparently included children standing outside the family home shouting "disabled bitch" and throwing stones and eggs at the windows.

There have been other deaths. March 2006: Keith Philpott, who had learning difficulties, was tortured to death at his flat in Teesside. July 2006: Steven Hoskin, a man with severe learning difficulties, was targeted by a group who cheated him out of his benefits, dragged him around his bedsit on a dog lead, before forcing him to take 70 painkillers and pushing him over the safety rail of a railway viaduct. Hoskin held on with his fingertips. One of the group stamped on his hands.

Still reading? I wouldn't blame you if you'd stopped. It may be unprofessional to admit it, but, hell, reading through the cuttings for this column I found myself crying uncontrollably.

There is more. September 2006: Kevin Davies, who suffered from epilepsy, was imprisoned in a shed for four months by his "friends", beaten daily, starved, burned, before a beating that ended in his death. August 2007: Brent Martin, who had learning difficulties, was stripped and beaten in the street, his injuries so severe that his uncle - outside whose home he finally collapsed - didn't recognise him when he went to his aid. Martin died in hospital.

The bullying of the disabled is endemic: in 1999, a survey by Mencap found that nine out of ten people with learning difficulties had been bullied. Earlier this year, a survey by the same charity found that eight out of ten children with a learning disability had been bullied, with the same proportion too scared to go out.

What can be done? An obvious answer is that social services must ensure those with learning disabilities receive the help they need - whether they live independently or with a carer. In Steven Hoskin's case, he had begun living away from his mother for the first time in his mid-thirties, receiving regular visits from Cornwall's department for adult social care until a month before his death. When contact ceased, the abuse he had suffered for months proved fatal.

Questions have been asked about whether the police response to Fiona Ann Pilkington's complaints of harassment was good enough (a police spokeswoman has described such suggestions as "unfair"). Whatever the truth in that case, it is clearly of the utmost importance that police respond swiftly and appropriately to such complaints. In 2003, there was some forward movement within the judicial system, when crimes motivated by a victim's disability were recognised as a form of hate crime.

As a result, those convicted of such offences can be given a higher tariff. But, as Ruth Scott, head of policy at Scope, has pointed out, the crimes against Hoskin and Davies were never actually investigated to see if disability hate crime was an aggravating factor.

Steps can be taken to tackle this bullying and violence, but there will never be improvements unless, as a society, we tap into our natural outrage. When murders motivated by racism or homophobia occur, there is, rightly, a public outcry - a recognition that if some good can be culled from the situation it is the reminder that such prejudice needs to be dealt with.

I understand why people look away from such stories. They feel too medieval, too feral, to confront. But until we express our outrage, we all inhabit a small corner of complicity.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet