For many people with a learning disability, harassment and abuse are part of everyday life. During June’s Learning Disability Week, Mencap launched the ‘Stand by me’ campaign to raise awareness of hate crime and put a stop to it
"If Keith didn’t have a learning disability, he would still be here today,” says Christine Oliver, whose brother Keith Philpott was tortured and murdered in his own home, in March 2005. “You don’t ever think it will turn out like this."
Christine is one of the faces of Mencap’s ‘Stand by me’ campaign and appears in a short film that launched the campaign during Learning Disability Week in June. The aim of the film - and the campaign as a whole – is to raise awareness of hate crime against people with a learning disability and find solutions to end it.
Keith was killed by two men, one of whom believed that Keith had sent sexually suggestive text messages to his sister. In recent years, horrific cases like this – and that of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her severely disabled daughter Francecca Hardwick in 2007, after years of torment by local youths - have hit the headlines.
As a result, awareness of disability hate crime is rising. A recent Ipsos MORI survey for Mencap found that 48% of the public believe that people with disabilities are more likely to be targets of abusive comments or aggressive behaviour than other people. But why does this happen?
In the last 50 years, people with a learning disability have become equal citizens in law and come out of institutions to live independently within their communities. However, unfortunately, there hasn’t been a corresponding shift in attitudes.
Katharine Quarmby, campaigning journalist and author of ‘Scapegoat’ – a new book on disability hate crime – believes that ancient ideas that dehumanised disabled people are still present in our society. “People with learning difficulties and mental health problems were singled out as early as 1300 - as lunatics and idiots - and they are still targeted today,” she explains.
While, thankfully, murders are rare, research by Mencap has shown that 9 out of 10 people with a learning disability are verbally harassed or exposed to violence. Many just accept it as part of everyday life.
Keith Philpott received aggressive text messages prior to the fatal attack. But he and his family and friends assumed they were silly, rather than malicious. Other people with a learning disability experience abuse on the bus or have their bins knocked over – often by so-called friends.
“There is a tendency to say, ‘oh it’s just a bit of bullying’,” says Kathryn Stone, chief executive of Voice UK, which supports people with a learning disability who experience crime or abuse. “But actually, if somebody called me names in the street, or pushed me, or took things from me, I wouldn’t call that bullying, I would call that assault or theft.”
Not only do these seemingly trivial incidents gradually chip away at people’s self-confidence, in some cases – such as Keith’s – they can escalate, with tragic consequences.
A perception-based crime
There is legislation in place to prevent these types of crimes. “Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act says that hate crime is a perception-based crime,” explains Kathryn, “so, if you believe somebody is targeting you because of their hostility towards your disability or sexuality or race, it is a hate crime.” Families, supporters and police officers can also flag up hate crime.
“But I think it’s very difficult to quantify how big a problem disability hate crime is,” says Kathryn. While numbers are starting to rise – police figures for 2009 showed a big increase in recorded disability hate crime (from 800 in 2008 to 1,402) – historically, many of these crimes have not been reported. This is partly because disabled people are desensitised to the problem, but also because many are frightened of repercussions or worried that nothing can or will be done about it.
Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that when people with a learning disability have reported hate crime, the police have not reacted effectively. “If we look at the Fiona Pilkington case, the police ignored a large part of what was going on and dismissed it as antisocial behaviour,” says Mark Gale, a campaigns and policy officer at Mencap. “They missed opportunity after opportunity to put a stop to it.”