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Lee Irving was 24 but, due to a learning disability, had what his mother describes as “the mind of an eight-year-old”. He was especially friendly; locals in Newcastle said Irving “always put his hand out to shake it” when he saw them. On Saturday morning, Irving’s body was found abandoned on grass next to a pathway, about 10 miles from his home. Two men appeared in court on Tuesday charged with his murder and police are treating it as a possible disability hate crime. Or, as they chillingly put it: a suspicion that Irving’s disability was a “motivation” for killing him.
We don’t yet know how or why he died. But whatever the truth of Irving’s death, the idea that anyone could hurt a person who, by definition, is the least able to fight back, claws at the gut of human decency. Or worse, that anyone could see that person’s vulnerability and difference as a reason to do it. That we do not wish to think about it does not mean it isn’t happening.
As Aditya Chakrabortty noted, hate crimes against disabled people in this country have been rising year on year since 2011. About one in six disabled people have experienced aggressive or hostile behaviour, the disability charity Scope found last year. Even in the context of a legal system that only last month was found to be widely failing disabled victims, there has been a 213% rise in disability hate crime prosecutions since it was first made an offence in 2007.
It is not just that these crimes appear more horrific because the victims are disabled. But rather the abuse is often more horrific because the victim is disabled. Research shows that disabled people are more likely to experience “particularly sadistic” treatment: sustained attacks that involve dehumanising humiliation, torture, and degradation.
Christine Lakinski is one of the disabled victims whose story is told in Scope’s disturbing 2008 research into hate crime – though I could point to many others like her. Lakinski became severely ill walking home in Hartlepool and hit her head as she stumbled, falling near her front door. Noticing her motionless on the pavement, three men – Lakinski’s neighbours – threw a bucket of water over her and “decorated” her with shaving cream. In broad daylight, the men filmed it on a mobile. As she lay dying, one of them urinated on her. “This is YouTube material” can be heard in the background of the recording, with laughter.
“There have been many cases involving disabled people who have been terribly abused, injured, murdered,” as the former director of public prosecutions, Lord MacDonald, explained last year. “But we don’t seem to have latched on to the fact yet, it seems to me, that this has happened to them simply because they’re disabled.”
Listen to disabled people describing the everyday abuse they face in public and it becomes difficult to tell them it is not because of their disability: be it a woman who had her crutches pushed from under her in a supermarket as she was called a “scrounger”, or the experience mentioned to me on social media of a six-year-old girl helped on to an accessible bus being screamed at by a driver for being a “spaz” who was in his way.
Is this what our society is now? Since an economic crisis was rebranded as “overspending” on public services, resentment and hatred towards disabled people seemingly comes easy. The rightwing press, television, and politicians are complicit in a culture that, over recent years, has normalised the scapegoating of disabled people.
The Sun eggs on readers to hunt down benefit fraudsters, fully aware that it is less than 1% of claims. Iain Duncan Smith frames £28bn worth of disability cuts – and now a further £12bn from social security – as a means to tackle the feckless.
Three years ago the major UK disability charities warned the government that this focus on alleged fraud and “overclaiming” of disability benefits was causing an increase in abuse directed at disabled people. By last year, more than one in 10 parents of disabled children were being verbally abused by family and friends due to the fact that they needed to claim benefits.
Whether it is for the headline murders of people like Lee Irving or the hidden, daily assaults and verbal abuse of others, our repulsion should not stop at the individual perpetrators – but go all the way to the culture that portrays disabled people as liars or leeches.
When a group is routinely dehumanised in this way, it is only a matter of time before their lives are seen to mean less.
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