Disability hate crime, benefit “fraud” campaigns and the hardest hit
If you're unfamiliar with disability hate crime, or perhaps among those who think that reports of it are a sympathy-grab by not-so-disabled people who want to stay on benefits, there is a striking interview a minute into this short documentary which will put you in the picture:
The interview (by disabled filmmaker and activist Karen Sheader) is with Muriel Henderson, a woman with a severe visual impairment who lives with her sister (who has the same visual impairment) in Northumberland. It describes disability hate crime and its escalation, and explains that things got so bad that intervention by a local officer was needed to stop it.
In the film, Muriel describes the appalling attacks, abuse and threats that she and her sister have had to put up with for more than 40 years as they have tried to get on with their lives.
She says that the aggression took the form of name-calling to start, but gradually developed into stone-throwing, gate-smashing, their front door being kicked in and bedroom windows smashed, and the sisters having to add bolts and steel bars to their door to keep thugs out.
Things only improved for Muriel and her sister when a community support officer began to work in their neighbourhood – it seemed that he protected them, simply by being around. “He was a visible presence. Even though he was only a community support officer, he was linked up to the police.” Her main fear these days is that budget cuts will remove that officer (a fear that is not without justification, as it turns out: this story about potential cuts to CSOs was published recently).
Muriel Henderson's is not an uncommon story. The scene worsens and worsens as the government and the press sharpen the darts - as torrents of Shop a Scrounger and Festering Fakers rubbish push us all to cast a critical eye at Blue Badge holders and adapted-car drivers and anyone who we suspect might be a) on a disability benefit and b) moving faster than someone on a disability benefit “should” (however you judge that).
I've been taken to task for holding lofty leftie views of The Sun's Blitz The Fiddler campaigns and readers who embrace the judgemental view of people on benefits. “What is tiresome [about the left],” observed one correspondent, “is the view that there is a lumpen mass of unenlightened proles brainwashed by pernicious media who have to be taught the error of their ways.” He was right – that is tiresome. It's very tiresome. Also tiresome, though, is the notion that people who feel that they are on the rough end of a press campaign shouldn't comment on it in case they patronise other consumers of it. Tiresome, too, is the idea that concerns about anti-benefit-recipient campaigns should not be reported because a leftie blowhard like me is reporting them.
And there are concerns, all right. Make no mistake there. Writers like Katharine Quarmby and Nicky Clark cover disability hate crime and targeting in detail. I've noticed the rise in fear myself, even though I haven't particularly been looking for it. Quite a few of the people I interview about Disability Living Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance now talk about having to answer thinly-veiled accusations about their entitlement to state support. Colin and Jen Dalley, who have three daughters with learning disabilities, told me that even members of their own family have accused them of scrounging. The journalist Frances Laing was asked by a careworker to explain her husband Richard's ability to walk a very short distance (he needed a cane to do it).
People at a recent Newcastle Hardest Hit meeting for people with disabilities which I attended raised the subjects of escalating public hostility and disability hate crime as priorities for debate. They were clear about the reasons for the problems. They pointed to cuts in police numbers and public sector funding (which was Muriel Henderson's fear – that she'd lose her community support officer), police indifference to abuse (in the short video from the meeting below, people give anecdotal reports of failed attempts to get police help) and – very near the top of the list - press campaigns which tell us that people on benefits are “scroungers” and call us to our “patriotic” duty to flush out disability “fakers.”
“It had got better - it really had,” Karen Sheader told me at the meeting. “It wasn't perfect, but there was more acceptance, but it's slipping back now. Campaigns like The Sun are running, directly against benefit scroungers – I think it is just hateful, really.”
"[Another area where] enough is enough is around the demonisation of disabled people in terms of the DWP's campaign to vilify disabled people," said the RNIB's Steve Winyard (he speaks in the video below, too). "What we've had is the steady drip-drip of disability benefit fraud stories from the DWP press office. Of course - these are usually about non-disabled people claiming disability benefits, but that gets lost. The damage is done and disabled people are associated with benefit cheating.”
He was right about that. The real numbers DO get buried in the mess. As Winyard also pointed out, a recent survey commissioned by Inclusion London found that people in survey focus groups believed that disability fraud is running at anything up to 70%. (The survey, Bad News for Disabled People: How Newspapers are Reporting Disability, is a telling analysis of the relationships between press and perception that affect us all.
The truth is that levels of benefit fraud are very much lower than 70%. This is particularly true of fraud associated with disability benefits.
"Look at these figures for [fraud around] disability benefits and see how low the figures are," Richard Exell wrote when the DWP released a recent report on fraud and error in the benefits system earlier this year. The figures showed 0.8% of benefit spending was overpaid due to fraud, amounting to £1.2 billion, and that the proportion was the same as in 2009/10. The number for Incapacity Benefit was 0.3% and for Disability Living Allowance 0.5%. "Remember them next time the BBC is running one of its 30-minute hate programmes, pushing the idea that every disabled person on benefits is a fraudster," Exell wryly observed.
Remember that, too, when you watch the video below. One man reports being tied to a lamppost by his harassers and having to jump out of the way as local youths rode mini-motorbikes at him.
Another man at the meeting said: “With the disability hate crime that I've experienced - it's been 30 instances in four years. I've had to spend £2000 to get a camera to prove to the police that this has been happening... We're seen as scroungers and we're not."
Kate Belgrave blogs on the experience of public service users facing cuts.
- Posted by: Kate Belgrave at 6:00am on 13 June 2012
- Filed under: Benefits, Disability, Interviews, Local government
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