Archive for September, 2011

Institutional disbelief In The Polite Society

September 19, 2011

Institutional disbelief In The Polite Society
I sit at the back of the hall. It’s our last night. As is traditional, we’re entertaining each other.
Two people take centre stage. It’s a sketch about a blind date. Harmless enough perhaps until the woman opens her mouth. She is playing someone who has something “”wrong” with the way she is speaking. I’m not clear whether she is pretending to have speech impairment or has something stuck in her mouth because I am blind and can’t see her.
She is a talented actor and her portrayal is realistic. The audience laugh. They continue to laugh as she plays out an absurd drama with her partner. I am alone. No one explains to me what is going on. All I know is what I hear. Bewildered, I sit waiting for the end of the sketch, for something to save the situation, to prove to me that this is not ableism alive and kicking amongst ordinary educated folk, but it never comes.
Just before the evening ends there is another sketch involving someone who appears to have a speech impairment. I don’t wait to see if there will be a saving twist. I walk out.
Later in the safety of my room, I find myself weeping uncontrollably. I am shaking. I am remembering what it felt like to be mocked and what that mockery led to.
I can’t believe that in this place, this haven of safety where everyone really works to be supportive of each other there are people who think it entertaining to ridicule people with speech impairments. I am even more shocked that no one else seems to mind.
On Monday last, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched the Disability Harassment Inquiry. I read the report with interest- having been at point’s part of the inquiry team – I want to find out how the evidence I heard way back when has influenced the findings.
The report authors call it “Hidden in Plain Sight” – they say there is a culture of disbelief surrounding disability harassment. The authorities (police, council, health service etc) don’t take disability harassment claims seriously: The report says: “There is a systemic failure by public authorities to recognise the extent and impact of harassment and abuse of disabled people, take action to prevent it happening in the first place and intervene effectively when it does.” Well I don’t know about you but I’d call that institutional discrimination.
This is exactly how the powers that be responded to the murder of Stephen Lawrence. No one believed it was a racially motivated murder. Today, race hate crimes are more likely to be acknowledged though whether the authorities properly respond to all of them is questionable. But there is something else going on too which is even more insidious. Assumptions are made about disabled people’s capacity to be good witnesses based on beliefs that we are somehow lesser than ordinary (non-disabled) mortals. The charity and medical models perpetuate the belief that it is we who are the problem and not society.
Everyone, sometimes even disabled people ourselves believe that it is our fault for being different, for daring to exist. What is actually going on is a deep-rooted if unconscious hatred and disgust of disabled people that goes back beyond the concept of Nazi useless Eaters into the dark past. The common psyche sees impairment as wrong and something to be cured, eliminated or prevented. Deep down under the equality veneer, and the vulnerable victim label, individuals working in public authorities innately feel that being disabled is the problem. No wonder we’re not taken seriously. All the most serious cases of harassment examined by the Inquiry started with low level name-calling. Over time they escalated, following the traditional pattern of behaviour described by Alport’s Scale of Oppression.

This is how Alport’s works. I have a mate, let’s call him Ian (that is not his real name) eighteen years ago, Ian who is HIV positive began to develop the symptoms of AIDS. Despite combination therapy, his condition developed and he started using a wheel chair on bad days and a walking stick on good ones. Because of his impairment, he was re-housed in an accessible ground floor Council flat, with an on street parking space.
1 Name calling:
The children on the estate began to taunt Ian. Because he didn’t always use a wheel chair and had an accessible flat, they accused him of pretending to be disabled.
2 Exclusion:
someone found out about his status, he didn’t know how. The adults on the estate stop talking to him and the children ran away screaming ‘plague’ when they saw him.
3 Discrimination:
The neighbours put two and two together and guessed that Ian was gay. One man in particular was often visiting Ian in his flat and one day, one of the children peeking in through Ian’s sitting room window, saw them kissing and told all the other children who added to their taunts ‘fag’ and ‘batty boy’. The adults made it clear that Ian was not welcome at the tenants meetings and was not invited to a street party that the residents were planning. They also complained to the Council about Ian’s car, which they said was parked in other people’s parking spaces, which Ian had to do as another resident parked in his space.
4 Threats/attacks:
One morning, Ian got up to find that abusive words had been scrawled on his car and the wings scored by something sharp. He got the car re-sprayed only to have it happen again the following week. He complained to the police and to his local Councillor. The police came to talk to the children and their parents. Two days later, his tyres were slashed. Ian started to park his car in another street and had to struggle to his house on foot or wheels. Elimination/genocide:
a sustained campaign of criminal damage began, accompanied by name-calling, avoidance and so on. When his windows were smashed for the third time, Ian could take no more. He took an overdose and was admitted to hospital. He was not expected to live but thankfully did. He decided to move in with his boyfriend until the Council re-housed him somewhere else.
Ian is alive and thriving today but could so easily have been one of those cases examined by the Inquiry. It’s just five steps from name calling to extermination.
When I was a child, the children on my housing estate started to call me names. Encouraged by my parents to rise above it, I chanted back “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” When the children started to exclude me from their games, I would play by myself, feeling lonely and miserable. When they started to kick footballs at me as i passed, I began to feel scared. Had my family not moved away at that point, who knows where that would have ended? What would the authorities have done if I had complained about the name calling, the ignoring or even the football kicking? They would have told me to rise above it I’ve no doubt. Disabled people, like all other oppressed groups are the target of jokes and cruel misrepresentation. This insidiously leads to the stereotypes being believed. It becomes common then that children, who look, sound or behave different should be mocked. Soon the playground is ringing with “Spazzo, spazzo, spazzo”. Adults call each other “spazzo” or say “Duh” pulling down the corner of their mouth with their finger when they’ve said or done something which they think is “stupid”. Well educated, nice, liberal people at the end of a weeklong training course do skits mocking disabled people and their companions laugh.
“Hey that’s life. There’s no harm in it”, everyone thinks.
If I object, I’m a humourless politically correct miserable spoil-sport. But the thing is, if we let people perpetuate stereotypes, if we smile weakly at the dreadful jokes and let things go; the names lead to exclusion, to discrimination, to attacks and threats and then by then it is but a short step to extermination whether by one’s own hand or another’s. Lay Alport’s scale across any of the cases examined in the Disability Harassment Inquiry and you see the pattern repeating itself again and again. This is why it is so very dangerous if the powers that be now ignore this report, if institutions who could do something about disability harassment ignore it at the low level name calling stage, then more disabled people will die and hundreds, maybe thousands more will live in misery wishing that they too were dead. And then what kind of a society will we be living in?

Kirsten Hearn
Monday September 19, 2011: