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26 September 2014

Just reporting disability hate crime does little to change deeper social attitudes

A court can only deter and punish, not challenge prevailing mindsets.

By Alex Taylor

I hesitated at first. At 24 I thought these days were behind me. But no, a group of grown men really were shouting “TIMMY” at me as I travelled to work in my electric wheelchair – a reference to the South Park character with learning difficulties so severe he can only shout his name.

As the taunts continued, I eventually confronted them: “I can hear, you know, which of you said that?” A little startled, the gang initially tried to play stupid, “You what, it wasn’t us mate”. When I pointed out it was funny they seemed to know exactly what I was referring to, all innocent pretence vanished. “Fuck off – on you go”. Same to you, I said.

In the week that a Crown Prosecution Service report concluded disability hate crime is “overlooked” and “under reported”, I have replayed the incident over in my mind. I never thought to report it. Should I have? No. Here’s why.

Legal action against such ignorant individuals may stop such overt discrimination in the future – and is vital for those less able to respond in the moment – but this alone does little to change deeper social attitudes.

By standing up for myself, I fulfilled the equally beneficial task of undermining their misguided preconceptions, and hopefully making them think twice in a similar future situation. A court can only deter and punish, not challenge prevailing mindsets.

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In the warped, arbitrary bubble of disability, with its cruel distribution of strengths and weaknesses, I have a responsibility to use my verbal capability and resilience to fight against prejudice. Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking can get on with the metaphysics.

This is especially true at a time when wider society remains at a complete loss when it comes to dealing with disability as a whole. The CPS report admits as much by concluding the need for a “clear and uncomplicated definition” of disability hate. It appreciates the need for some weaponry to fight beyond the structural rights of the Disability Discrimination Act and it’s like. For too long, the focus has been too narrow, leaving most people paralysed as to how to approach disability in real terms – including verbal and physical abuse.  

Unease at facing up to the issue lets it get swept under the carpet. Deputy Mayor of London, Victoria Borwick, recently released a report detailing the widespread, varied nature and scope of abuse, and fittingly titled it “Hidden Hate”.  

But this is not something I, nor the judicial system, should, or can, face alone. To heal this fractured understanding it is equally important to engender social policing as much as legal. We all have a responsibility to socially police hate and discrimination of all kinds.

In my example above, those around us heard the comments, yet only responded in support when I stood up for myself, took the lead, and made it clear this wasn’t acceptable to let pass.  Progress will only be come when society, led by victims, finds its voice to defend those deemed easy targets – outside the courtroom as much as in it.

There is also a more personal element to this problem. Verbal insults and abuse, whether it be name calling, the hate mail I received at 11 years old calling me “spack legs”, or more subtle patronisation, disregard my identity as an individual.

The same goes for any disabled person subjected to abuse for their disability, it negates their whole personality.

I am thankful for the CPS report, it is a step forward in raising the issue. However, I, and wheelchair users like me, need, wherever and however possible to forcefully initiate the distinction between the wheelchair and the individual, just as Everyday Sexism has done for contemporary feminism.

To put it bluntly, I am not South Park’s Timmy, Ricky Gervais’ Derek, or one of Iain Duncan Smith’s faceless benefit scroungers. I am Alex Taylor, a 24-year-old on his way to work.