PARALYMPICS: They can be heroes… Just for a fortnight…

A bit of soap-boxing about disability, social injustice and prejudice. Normal service (with added duk-duks!) will be resumed as soon as possible…

Two pieces of TV scheduling have caught my eye in the past week, the first being the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on Channel 4 and the second a documentary on ITV called ‘Don’t Hate Us,’ investigating a massive rise in the incidence of hate crime against the disabled. I mentioned in my blog a couple of weeks ago my concern that the ‘superhuman’ aspect of Channel 4’s coverage of the games would draw focus from the real issues of disability, so I was pleased to see, however shocking or harrowing, the documentary offering a wider perspective on what it means to be a disabled person in the UK today.

The documentary, along with several articles I’ve read on the same topic recently, suggested a link between political propaganda targeting benefit cheats and the rise in the incidence of hate crime. While I think that is a key issue I think it would be too easy to get sidetracked by it and to overlook the many other social changes that, IMO, also contribute, because my guess would be that most hate crimes are not committed by those in regular employment who have taken to hate crime as an after work leisure activity. I may be wrong, but my suspicion is that statistics, if available, would reveal a majority of abusers themselves dependant on benefits, or at the very least living in environments where poverty and welfare dependency are more common and where violent and intimidating behaviours – long-established bedfellows of poverty – are more regular features of everyday life.

That political and media propaganda (let’s not overlook the media’s role in this) may have identified targets for abusers and provided them – in terms of their own skewed logic – with a justification for hate crime against the disabled is one thing, but there are far bigger social issues that also need to be addressed. Poverty and its implications are only the tip of that iceberg. A quick search around the internet indicates that hate crime against all minority groups is on the increase, suggesting not that disabled people are just a new class of victims but that society has generally become more ‘hateful’ and intolerant of difference across the board. I think that’s reflected in every aspect of modern life, and that it infects our culture, in different ways, at every social level.

One of the key factors in discrimination and abuse is the dehumanisation of victims. By making others, individually or collectively, ‘less than’ or ‘other’ whole sectors of society can feel justified in abusing other sectors without having to worry about sticky issues like morals or conscience. This is the fundamental basis of all prejudice, allowing us (or at least those of us who aren’t out-and-out sociopaths to begin with) to inflict or allow to be inflicted abuses that we would otherwise find ourselves incapable of condoning.

On an individual level this dehumanisation is the process that allows us to walk straight past the homeless and hungry on our streets without slipping them a handful of loose change. On a global or collective scale it is the process that allows CEOs of multinational businesses to justify decisions that exploit the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable people on the planet, and to do so secure in the knowledge that the vast majority of their customers – and certainly their shareholders – will happily go along with it. Similarly, it is the process that allows city bankers to play international monopoly with entire economies without ever considering, or needing to consider, the devastating effects for those human beings represented by the tokens they play with.

And it is, of course, the same process that allows politicians to target vulnerable minorities and label them as undesirables and scroungers, and to convince others, like you and me, to go along with it…

So just how much – or, more importantly, how little – does it take to be ‘other’ in our society today? In the past it’s been things like skin colour or gender or sexuality that have made people targets for abuse, but we seem to be adding to that list all the time. In schools children are bullied over the trainers they wear or the mobile phones they carry, and while we might write those things off as childish or insignificant aren’t they precisely the kinds of value judgements that increasingly underpin (so called) ‘grown up’ interactions too? And if somebody can be dismissed as a ‘non-person’ on the basis of the label on their phone or the label on their clothes then what chance have they got of overcoming the other, much larger, negative labels that society seeks to apply?

You can turn on your TV any night of the week and hear jokes made at the expense of  ‘mongs’ and ‘spazzes’ and ‘retards’ or ‘gaylords’, ‘chavs’ and ‘gash’, and while it is often funny it is also the language of hate, no different when viewed in context from the jokes that used to be made in the ‘70’s about ‘nig-nogs’ or ‘Pakis’ on TV series like Love thy Neighbour and Till Death Us Do Part. Now, of course, the terms ‘irony’ and ‘satire’ are often applied as a defence, but aren’t satire and irony kind of dependent on context too, and a mutual understanding between performer and viewer that provides that context? Without it, it is just abuse, and it appears, from the statistics indicating a rise in hate crime, that many within our society are incapable of making the distinction.

Put simply, if we want to eliminate hate crime then we have to start looking beyond labels and seeing the individuals behind them. Disability is a label, a social construct, in the same way that colour, gender, class, sexuality etc are labels and social constructs. Expressions like ‘some of my best friends are black’, or ‘I don’t see the wheelchair I see the person in it’ are not expressions of acceptance and they do not promote inclusion. They are patronising acknowledgments, albeit well meant in most cases, that there’s an elephant in the room. If we chose to see the wheelchair and the individual but not to judge or make assumptions we can see solutions. Often they are very simple – it just takes a ramp and wider aisles to make a shop or a theatre universally accessible, for example, and to level the playing field.

The problems of welfare dependency and unemployment are less easily resolved, but we could start by simply acknowledging the undeniable fact that save for a major social upheaval or worldwide catastrophe there will almost certainly never be full employment in the UK (or most other countries) again. That’s not politics or economics, it’s just logistics, and it’s completely unreasonable to make the unemployed scapegoats for the fact that there are more people of working age available today than there are jobs to accommodate them. It’s also completely unreasonable to target those who find it most difficult to find work because of wider social prejudices and doubly disenfranchise and marginalise them.

I don’t have any idea what the solutions are to the global financial crisis or to the politics and culture of hate that emerges from it. I only know that the targets of that hate – be they single mums on benefits, those who’ve been made homeless, those whose skin colour, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or disability create barriers to employment, or those who simply don’t like I-Phones – don’t deserve the treatment being meted out to them, and applying a label that makes them ‘superhuman’ for a fortnight or so isn’t going to redress that.


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