Remembering the Holocaust – and the disabled victims who died in the T4 programme

In this extract from my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011), on Holocaust Memorial Day, I am sharing my analysis of how the T4 Nazi killing machine was inspired by eugenics enthusiasts in the UK and the US. It’s a grim read, I’m afraid, but important to remember why so many people died. Never again.

Extract from: Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011)

by Katharine Quarmby

The legitimisation of eugenic views through Europe and American ended in a logical, if horrifying outcome: the systematic murder of thousands of disabled people in Germany, after the Nazis came to power in 1933. The National Socialist Party wanted to create a pure Aryan nation, and eradicate the taint of the Jewish people (as well as homosexuals and gypsies) But a lesser known part of their moral thought was that “degenerate”, impaired Aryans should also be eliminated. In some ways what happened to Jewish people was a tragedy foretold in the slaughter of innocent disabled children and adults, used to perfect the killing technology that was then practised on the Jews. Racial hygiene, as Hitler called it, started with the social cleansing of disabled people.

The artist, Liz Crow, has spent the last two years investigating the process that lead up to what was known as the T4 killing programme, for her art installation, Resistance. She has identified a systematic “softening up” of the population so that they would be prepared for the programme.

One part of that campaign was to open asylums to the public (as in the Victorian freak-shows), to promote the racial hygiene laws. Thousands visited in the mid 1930’s, including many members of the SS. Each tour, Liz Crow says, “culminated in a lecture illustrating, via the inmates, symptoms and the necessity for eugenic measures.”

Another strand of the campaign was through film and posters, stressing the cost of disability (similar to the less systematic, but no less brutal campaign in the US). One example she has found, from a sequence in a Reich propaganda ministry film, shows disabled people lying in cot beds, with the strap line: “Life only is a burden”. Another, which combines the Nazi attitude towards minority ethnic groups and disabled people, is of a film of a black man holding out a begging bowl, with the strap-line: “Mentally ill negro English, sixteen years in an institute costing 35,000 Reich marks.” As Liz Crow comments: “what happened to this (disabled) community served as a prototype for everything that came later….Had people intervened at that point, presumably, what came next would have been, in some way, different…disabled people were the guinea pigs for the next phase.”

The first law that the Nazis passed on coming to power was the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, instituted on July 14, 1933. Those with deafness, schizophrenia and other “malformations”, such as learning difficulties were prevented from breeding by sterilisation. The law was based on the laws functioning in Chicago, drafted by Henry Laughlin. Indeed, there was much admiration in 1936 of Nazi doctors for American eugenicists – even awarding one an honorary doctorate.

Hitler and other leading Nazis were also much influenced by Sparta, where he admired “’the exposure of sick, weak deformed children, in short their destruction, was more decent and in truth a thousand times more humane than the wretched insanity of our day which seeks to preserve the most pathological subjects.” Nazi propaganda against disabled people increased, labelling them “unworthy of life”, “useless eaters” and highlighting their burden on society in print and films. Hitler’s Strength Through Joy campaign prioritised getting rid of the “syphilitics, consumptives, hereditary degenerates, cripples and cretins”. He wrote in Mein Kampf that “the lame and the defective are a scourge on humanity”.

The decision to eradicate disabled children started with Gerhard Kretschmar, and accelerated shortly afterwards, apparently when other families with disabled offspring also petitioned Hitler for permission to kill their children (although some German writers were advocating this solution as early as 1920). It is estimated that at least 5000 children, from newborn babies up to juveniles, were murdered. Some were starved, others gassed.

In July 1939 planning of the T4 programme (so-called after the street address in Berlin where it was co-ordinated) of mercy killings began. An experimental gassing procedure was carried out in the winter of 1939, and the Reichs-Committee for the Processing of Serious Genetic Diseases was also formed that year, collecting data on infants and ‘deformed newborns”. German doctors took part voluntarily in the programme, and the earlier, related programme of sterilisation. The German paediatrician, Hartmut Hanauske-Abel, who has examined many of the official documents relating to both programmes, suggests that they did so because they were convinced of the rectitude of eugenics, the programme was profitable for them and it released corpses for medical experimentation. (When he first published his findings in the Lancet in 1986, he was suspended from practising as a doctor in Germany. He later won an appeal against his suspension. )

He writes about the programme thus: “The practical experience obtained in the killing hospitals of T4 provides the core for the annihilation technology of the death camps, often implemented by the same technical and medical personnel.” He concludes: “Changes which today are interpreted as causing the downfall of the German medical community were at that time warmly welcomed by the widest segments of that highly educated biomedical and scientific elite.”

One nurse involved in the children’s killing programme, at the Hadamar facility, in northern Germany, one of the six institutions where disabled people were murdered, Chief Nurse Irmgard Huber, said at her trial in 1947: “The lives…are just as valuable as my life, but I couldn’t change anything there. I didn’t have any say. I couldn’t report anything. I avoided the matter.” Instead, she distributed sweets to the children before they went to the gas chamber.

No-one abroad seemed much interested – except other euthanasia enthusiasts.
In 1939, when Germany started to practice euthanasia against disabled children and adults, one officer in the American Eugenics Society commented it showed “great courage”. Indeed, it is estimated that by 1941 the numbers of those sterilised in the US had reached nearly 36,000. One doctor, Joseph Dejarnette, a doctor from the state of Virginia, commented that “the Germans are beating us at our own game.” In 1942 an article in the journal of the American Psychiatric Association called for the killing of all “retarded” children over five.

Hitler signed the order to start killing disabled adults on September 1, 1939, giving permission for those who were “incurable” to be “accorded a mercy death.”

Grey buses, with blacked-out windows, would arrive outside villages, local asylums and hospitals to take disabled people away. They were known to children as “the murder box” and mothers would frighten their children, saying that they would be taken away in them if they were naughty.

By the end of the war it is thought that around 200,000 disabled citizens had been murdered, among them the insane, the disabled, the tubercular and the retarded, as the Nazis called them.

The killing, one writer, Hugh Gregory Gallagher, commented, was methodical and scientific. “What was interesting and important about the killing program is not the mad-dog killers, but rather the careful, orderly and quite medical manner by which the full Germany medical and scientific establishment proceeded to kill its patients over a period of years.”

One witness recalled that when the killing first started, beds were made with fresh linen and warm blankets. When people arrived to be killed, they were given hot coffee and warm rolls. Of course we will never know whether this was genuine compassion for their fate, or a desire to make the killings easier to achieve. Soon, however, the numbers of those due for killing rose and the system became stressed. The Nazis started to reuse coffins (by designing them with a flap that opened in the bottom to allow the corpse to fall out) and started to dig mass graves, especially for children.

Some churchmen remonstrated. The Bishop of Limburg protested in 1941, writing to the minister of justice: ‘the citizens of Hadamar watch the smoke rise out of the chimney and are tortured with the every-present though of the poor sufferers’. Another, the bishop of Paderborn, said “among those unhappy beings who are destined to be killed or who have already been killed, there are many who aside from partial disturbances are mentally completely clear and who know what is going to happen to them.” However, one influential Catholic, Joseph Mayer, became an apologist for the Holocaust, writing: “moral law applies only to the mentally normal, rational individuals. Mental patients do not belong in the moral order, neither as subjects nor in terms of implementation.” Later he prepared a report saying that there were reputable moral arguments for and against sterilisation on both sides.

Before long, the regime was even killing World War One veterans and even shell-shocked veterans fresh from the Western front. However, this policy was short-lived, partly because it affected troop morale.

There were poignant scenes. In one village, Absberg, the villagers and abbess protested against disabled residents of the abbey being taken away in 1940. The abbess said a special mass for them, and one eye-witness reported: “They were seen as stirred up, like animals”, and refused to go. One woman said “I don’t want to go.” The people of the town gathered, and waved goodbye to their friends causing wide-scale disgust as the news spread. In another village, not far away, in Bruckberg, those who were about to die visited almost every house in town to say goodbye.

But the Absberg and Bruckberg protests, such as they were, did have an effect. The secret of the grey buses was secret no longer. The villagers of Absberg protested to their Bishop, Von Galen, who thundered from his pulpit that what was happening must stop. T4 was cancelled officially shortly afterwards, in August 1941. But unofficial killing continued thereafter – in what is known as the “wild phase” of the programme.

The banality and playfulness of the evil often perpetrated against disabled people, is best exemplified in what Hugh Gregory Gallagher claims happened when the staff of Hadamar were assembled, in the midsummer of 1941, to celebrate the 10,000 murder in the institution. The staff celebrated the anniversary with beer and wine, in the same room where the people had been put to death. The body of the murdered man was adorned with flowers and laid on a gurney, decorated with small Nazi flags. The hospital book-keeper, Mr Merkle, in the words of one witness, “turned his collar about, put his coat on backward, and intoned a burlesque eulogy of the deceased insane person.”

The physicians who participated in the euthanasia campaign have mostly never been successfully prosecuted. They did not stand trial at Nuremburg, unlike other Nazi mass murderers because their crimes had been, in the main, perpetrated against other German citizens, rather than foreigners. As a result, Professor William Seidelmann writes, “Absent from the dock were the leaders of the medical profession of the Third Reich, in particular the academic and scientific elite. It was this elite who legitimised the devaluation of human life and set the stage for medical crimes—crimes in which leading academics and scientists were either principals or accomplices.” There may have been another reason, too, for the paucity of trials. Liz Crow argues that the Nuremburg prosecutors were clear in their minds that what happened to the Roma, the Jews and other groups was abhorrent. “But they were confused about whether killing disabled people was a public service. The prevailing attitudes about disabled people, that they were inferior, pitiable and burdensome, defined their judgement.”

Back in the UK, the return of the war wounded did increase public sympathy for the physically disabled and those with shell-shock and other mental health conditions. Churchill, too, had mellowed. One of his last acts as a war-time Prime Minister was to commit the so-called “mental millions” to support those returning from war, with their nerves in shreds. One third of servicemen invalided out of the army had been discharged on mental heath grounds. Disabled people had gotten angry at last: veterans from both world wars lobbied for the right to work through organisations such as the National League for the Blind and Disabled, holding sit-ins to force government to ensure their right to employment.

The end of the war did achieve two things for disabled people – it confronted Britain and America with the ugly reflection of their own ideas in Nazi Germany – and it created more sympathy for some categories of disabled people – though not all within British society. The many disabled war veterans, in particular, normalised physical impairment for many. And the end of the war was also the beginning of the end for the institutions – but with numbers reaching a record 150,000 in 1950, it was to prove a very long journey.


As for Gerhard Kretschmar, his identity was concealed from us for over fifty years, known only as child K in official terminology. His short and miserable life was hidden in the Stasi files in East Germany, and only came to light when a German historian, Ulf Schmidt, unearthed it, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and wrote about him in his biography of Hitler’s physician, Karl Brandt. Gerhard’s murder was recorded, not as euthanasia, but as “heart failure”, like so many others. He, of course, like those victims of mercy killings today, did not consent to his death. Few know of Gerhard’s life, or death. If it had not been for Ulf Schmidt we would not even know his name. Many of the other victims of T4 remain nameless even now. Astonishingly, those responsible for murdering their “patients” could escape responsibility – by claiming that the patients they had killed had a right to medical confidentiality.
The last victim of T4, Liz Crow says, was a four year old disabled boy, Richard Jenne. “The American forces moved into Bavaria, the last area they liberated, and they put a protective ring around the local institution for disabled people, not knowing about T4. He was killed. Four weeks after peace was declared.”

Too many of the victims of T4 remain nameless. And naming the dead, and what was done to them, matters. I believe that Gerhard’s story, Richard’s story, and those of other disabled people murdered like them, should be known and taught in British schools. They were human beings, not beastly burdens who should be put out of their misery. We owe it to them to remember them, and to give them their rightful place in our common history. For if we do not learn from history, we cannot guarantee that it will not be repeated.

2021 in review

The pandemic dominated journalism this year and last, but I wanted to use this last post of 2021 to give a round-up of the work I’ve been lucky enough to carry out this year, what I’m doing next year – and to thank everyone with whom I’ve worked – whether as a collaborator, an editor or as an interviewee.

I’ve written on subjects ranging from disability, to environmental justice, to the history of forced migration, as well as the plight of Afghan nationals, both here and stuck in Afghanistan, in a rapidly deteriorating situation. I’ve worked increasingly on the rights of Gypsy and Traveller communities, in a year in which the right to live a nomadic life has been put under extreme threat by the Johnson administration – and looked at the effect of hostility on community members. I wrote a long-read about the ten year anniversary since the eviction of Dale Farm, considering its lasting legacy.

I was also lucky enough to be asked to work with the veteran disability rights campaigner, Alicia Wood, in co-creating a new website, Dying to Matter, which aims to memorialise the deaths of those dying in institutional care. Our launch article was my long-read about the death of Danny Tozer. It’s a hard read, and I want to thank Danny’s family for being so generous with their time. I hope it’s a fitting tribute to a much loved son. Do visit the website if you’d like to read more, or post a memorial of a loved family member who died in care. We will start to post them as soon as possible.

Friendship and family has been a real comfort this year. Books too, so I’m including a link to some of the books I’ve reviewed. I enjoyed books by Pat Barker, Nigel Farndale and Meg Keneally, among many others.

I also reviewed three books that, in different ways, explored the rich experience of disability and family – by Jan Grue, Jessica Moxham and Melanie Pearson. All recommended.

Talking of books, I spent much of my spare time this year finishing off my first novel, The Low Road, which tells the story of two young women who were convicted of grand larceny and eventually transported to Botany Bay in the 1820’s. It is based on a true story I uncovered in my Norfolk home town – more news on the book next year. This year I also looked at the history of transportation in a long read for Byline Times, asking why it has largely been forgotten in the UK, whilst it is remembered in Australia.

Turning to next year, I’ll be continuing with my work on environmental justice and looking at how health intersects with planning and housing for my project for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. You can read more about that work in my previous post from just a month or so ago.

I’ve also teased out some of the intersections between low traffic neighbourhoods, environmental justice and marginalised communities, in an article for the Times – I hope to look at this area of work again, in my wider work on what environmental injustice looks and feels like.

My dad and me, as a very young adopted child

I’ve also returned to my own roots, thinking through my own family history of trans-racial adoption and asking more urgent questions about this government’s handling of children at risk of harm, abuse and neglect, and interrogating whether the profit motive is a fit one for boosting protection within our care system. I looked in detail at concerns around transparency, independence of the ongoing review of care and accountability in my latest article. In other articles for Byline Times I looked at the recent murders of two small children and asked about what good system change would look like.

Lastly, I want to point up an article I wrote for the Guardian in December 2020, just over a year ago. It looked at the effect of hate crime on Gypsy, Roma, Traveller and other related communities, including the high levels of suicide.

I hope that next year will be a happier, easier one for everybody. This year has been hard. Unfortunately it has convinced me even more that we need investigative journalism more than ever, as we live through dark times, with political mismanagement, to say the least.

Environmental racism, location of Traveller sites and human rights – my new investigation

Just a few weeks ago I was told that the Paul Hamlyn Foundation had awarded me a grant, through its Ideas and Pioneers Fund, to look at environmental injustice around the location of Traveller sites. I am hugely grateful to the Foundation for the grant.

Environmental injustice, also known as environmental racism where it applies to ethnic minority communities, is the effect of discrimination on the environment where communities live, which can have devastating mental and physical health effects. There’s an interesting paper in the medical journal, The Lancet, here, explaining it in greater depth. The reason I have widened out the concept to environmental injustice is that it can also apply to other marginalised groups, such as care leavers, women living in refuges and refugees – all of whom can also be housed in temporary or unsatisfactory housing.

The first stage to the work I have done looking at the effect of environmental injustice on nomadic or site-dwelling Gypsy and Traveller community members was to map all public (local authority or socially rented) Traveller sites in England, which I did in May this year, culminating in an investigation for Byline Times.

Typical site mapping for the first stage of the project, showing a site sandwiched between a railway line and busy road

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation planning project

For this new project, I’m hoping to look at sites that chart the history of planning since the passing of the Caravan Sites Act, which was implemented in 1970. This will include some recent sites, as well as some older ones.

I have now mapped Wales and Scotland as well, with similar findings to those in England. I am now starting to identify the sites to visit and research.


I will also do some more work on the health effects – both mental and physical – of living in or near dangerous and unpleasant places like sewage stations, rubbish tips and roads as well. The communities have lower levels of life expectancy, as well as higher levels of certain conditions, including gastro-intestinal, respiratory and disability in general, as well as higher levels of childhood accidents.


I’m involving local and national Gypsy, Roma and Traveller organisations in the work and aim to report parts of the work as I continue with the project. I will be saying a lot more about this going forward but the principle underpinning the work is the disability movement’s mantra, nothing about us, without us.

I hope this research project with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation will show how the planning system – which could be described as a machine – has levers which can embed racist or environmentally unjust practices, leading to health effects on a marginalised community. I hope I can demonstrate what the levers are and what lies behind them – a widespread hostility to Traveller sites, underpinned by both prejudice and a fear about house prices. How best can communities then be empowered to put a spanner in that machine and force better and more transparent practice in the future?

Three books on disability, family and rights

In this post I’m going to briefly review three books that look at family life and disability. I’ve grouped these three together because disability affects individuals but also determine and impact life in a family. It’s easy to feel sometimes that the voices of those who live with people with a disabilty become segregated from disabled people themsleves, meaning that life in all its richness isn’t told in the round but as a series of separate stories. 

I feel that our life as a family has been changed and enriched by all our family members – Great Uncle Henri, a French war veteran who was blinded in the First World War and ran an association of blind former soldiers, another French family member who had a spinal condition and my lovely great aunt Cecile, who had schizophrenia. Nearer to home my granddad was deaf, and in more recent generations family members are autistic. I don’t want to romanticise our experience of disability though – it’s not easy, dealing with stigma, poor social support and the impact of particular conditions on family life. One that has shaped my immediate family life most, depression, remains particularly poorly understood.

So I”ve been itching to look at these three books that all take a clear sighted look at disability, family life and the gaze of outside, which can other and stigmatise, making life harder than it needs to be.

Jan Grue’s memoir, I Live a Life Like Yours (Pushkin Press, 2021) is a beautifullly written memoir of Grue’s life as a journey through disability, translated by Becky Crook from the Norwegian. Grue, a Professor of Qualitative Research at the University of Oslo, draws on art, fiction and the lives of other disabled pioneers, such as the writer Mark O’Brien, to explore themes including family life, the body and relationships. It is a thoughtful meditation on how to be fully human with a disability when the external gaze is clinical or stigmatising – and how relationships with others, including his wife and son, restore a sense of subjectivity, rather than being objectified – and even judged. Grue makes the point that his life is similar to others in his family, but is experienced as different in a way that is often uncomfortable.

“I follow a timeline that others might have followed. I live in the same city where I grew up. I am an academic, a child of academics. I live a life like theirs. I am married and have a child with Ida, who is a woman who writers…These are the threads that hold my life together. This is the fabric.”

But as Grue says, when people meet him who knew him as a child, there is a sense of surprise, because he has “surpassed expectations”, prognoses. There is another sense too, that to live a life like everyone else’s, there is struggle – against the gaze, against the threat of institutionalisation, so that Grue and other disabled people are accepted, just as they are in a world of barriers where everything must be planned. “It is hard to be human beneath the institutional gaze.” Grue’s exploration of O’Brien’s own exploration of the troubled landscape of sex surrogacy and competing rights is particularly sensitive. 

This is an outstanding book in which Grue’s experience becomes a fulcrum around which he explores a disabled life lived in connection with other people, both those who objectify and those who support and are supported by him being in the world, navigating it and peeling away the shame and stigma that still cling to disability like a burr on wool.

In The Cracks that Let the Light In, by Jessica Moxham (Octopus, 2021), the writer explores the subtitle  – What I learned from my Disabled Son. Moxham explores how she and her husband, James, have raised their three children whilst supporting their eldest child, Ben, who uses a wheelchair and needs assistance to communicate. Life in a family with a disabled child is one where you take on the state in all its guises. Whether you like it or not you become an advocate, a campaigner for equal rights, and even pushing to raise a family becomes a political act. Life isn’t what you imagine, and Moxham feels her way through some of the thoughts that are often linked with life with a disabled child – that there is grief, even though your child is alive, for instance. Like Rue, she explores the idea that the young disabled child’s body should be put through exercises to change it, when she sees how her second son rolls and moves. “No matter how much time I had spent helping Ben roll or sit, he would not have been able to overcome the essentiall wobbliness and involuntary movement of his muscles. I am relieved rather than sad…Ben’s impairments cannot be taken away.” One vivid passage explores the fact that Ben’s disability means that he dribbles. A child at her son’s nursery calls it disgusting. There were surgical options and other interventions such as Botox. “All of these would involve recovery periods, side effects, disruption. We decided we wouldn’t intervene, but had he noticed the girl saying he was disgusting? I didn’t know whether we should reduce his dribbling to make him more acceptable to strangers…My aim is for our children to grow up thinking they are enough…I don’t want him to feel like he takes up more space than he is worth, or to force him to be a certain way because it’s perceived as more palatable.”

Moxham’s clear sense that some bodies work differently and that’s OK is nuanced, but challenging in a good way. She says she has got bolder over the years – but is also just getting on with life. “Sometimes I’m considering the careful use of particular words and tone, sometimes I’m policing other people’s language and sometimes I’m just shouting “Bum!” at my kids. 

There is such a clear sense of family life going on, accepting each child’s idiosyncrasies. “We have pitched our tents on the undulating landscape of uncertainty and we’re making the most of it…we are all doing our best.”

Lastly, I wanted to mention Somebody Up There Likes Me: Living with the Threat of Huntington’s Disease (Amazon, 2021), written by Melanie Pearson about her family’s experience of being affected by the condition. Her mother and brother both had the condition, and she supported her brother through the condition. Pearson’s book is an exploration of how ignorant so many medical professionals are, and how poor the support is for those with the condition. Despite the hardship and bereavement, Pearson is very clear that this isn’t a misery memoir, but more of a road map through a condition that is hugely misunderstood, leaving families to support their members with it and the difficulty of choosing whether or not to have a test for it, knowing what your future might be. 

Segregation and racism – the real story behind the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Over this year, the tenth anniversary since the eviction of Dale Farm, I’m going to be reporting on how Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are treated in the UK. The first site I visited was Dale Farm, in Essex, well before the 2011 eviction. The veteran campaigner, Grattan Puxon, picked me up at a nearby station and drove me to meet Mary Ann McCarthy, a well-loved and respected resident at Dale Farm. I was given a warm welcome and visited again afterwards, and then often in the run-up to the eviction. I also visited other sites under threat of eviction, such as Meriden in the West Midlands, as well as horse fairs, religious meetings and protests. I got to know many families, and made friends. I also spoke to other people, like me, from the settled community.

One question that always puzzled me and that I got asked myself when my book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013) was published – why do so many homeowners get up in arms when a council or a family from the community wants to create a site? And what’s the effect of community after community saying, ‘not in my back yard’?

That’s what I have set out to investigate this year – how our planning system interlocks with that hostility and pushes nomadic families to the very margins of our society. I explore it in this article for Byline Times, in which I carried out a data investigation looking at where Travellers sites are located.

The results of the data analysis were shocking, but not surprising. Of the 242 sites that were mapped, 36% were within 50 metres of one or more A road, motorway, railway line, refuse/recycling, sewage or an industrial estate, canal or river; more than half (51%) were within 100 metres, 72% within 300 metres and 79% within 500 metres. Many sites were located near busy A roads and motorways (see chart below).

Given what we know about air quality and its effect on human health, I find this particularly shocking.

There are some very useful comments in the article, but I wanted to surface a couple of others here. Pauline Anderson, chair of the Traveller Movement, tells me: “Health outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers and life expectancy are the lowest in the country. Having to live in such dangerous and polluted areas because of a lack of safe stopping places and proper sites is making people ill and contributing to early death. Nomadism is not a lifestyle choice it is part of our heritage and ethnic identity which those who oppose us would like to eradicate. Proper site provision is the only answer and one which would give safety to those who are faced with nowhere to go but these squalid and unhealthy places.”

William Acker, a French lawyer, tells me that he conducted a similar investigation in France and found the same pattern. “I did the same research project as you in France, on 1,358 reception areas dedicated to Travellers. I found the same thing : ethnic relegation, state anti-Gypsyism and systemic pollution!”

The investigation was published in the week that Parliament was discussing plans to criminalise trespass, which will disproportionately affect nomadic communities. So when you read pieces about Travellers and trespass, take a look at some of the sites I mapped (two are below), near sewage stations, recycling areas and busy roads – and ask yourself how you would feel, trapped in such places. What are the pull and push factors here, and why is our planning system working to segregate whole communities in this way?

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and disability access

I wrote the piece above with Andrew Ellson of the Times, which you can read here, looking at the effect of the hasty implementation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) on disabled Londoners.

I spoke to disabled peoples’ organisations and charities and also to individual disabled Londoners across a number of the LTNs – Islington (where I live in Finsbury Park), Ealing, Greenwich, Lewisham and Waltham Forest (in many ways the standard bearer for the schemes).

Many of the disabled people I spoke to stressed their concerns around air pollution and were fully supportive of measures to reduce air pollution and improve the built environment. They were, however, critical of councils using emergency Covid-19 powers to rush through schemes where disability needs were not considered, as they would have been during any other scheme due to the Equality Act.

This is what people had to say. I’ve removed peoples’ surnames although they provided them.

GREENWICH – JOE


“I know several disabled and elderly people who have been affected by LTNs in my borough, Greenwich, and am also disabled myself, with several ‘invisible’ disabilities. Greenwich have implemented LTNs with bollards despite objections made by residents and emergency services.

They are now looking to introduce several more LTNs, which would mean every single hill in Greenwich (and they’re pretty steep) except one, which is already adversely affected by current LTNs, would be closed to those requiring a vehicle to travel. No exemptions will be made for Blue Badge holders as stated on the council’s website. Instead, literature has suggested people either walk, cycle, scoot or ‘wheel’.

The irony is, the council recently unveiled a new Equality Charter.

So far, the council have refused to listen to our views. A letter sent to the leader of the council on 28 March signed on behalf of 2,500 residents, requesting an online meeting between the leader of the council and a handpicked number of disabled and elderly people, as well as carers across the borough, has been ignored.”

WALTHAM FOREST – CHARLES


“I’ve been shielding in my flat for months now, and am likely to remain so after the lockdown finishes. Getting out to the rest of Walthamstow and beyond is now much harder and more painful than it was before. The nearest access to the main road by car is shut and access by road to the sports field is shut. I understand the appeal of pedestrianising cities and discouraging cars, and the reasons behind it, I was able-bodied once. So many places disabled people won’t realistically be able to go now, with roads closed and the car park in the marshes being closed soon. In a life that was already restricted it is depressing.
When I first came to Walthamstow in 2010 it wasn’t too bad – as a disabled driver I could get
to most of the city. Since then more and more of the area has been made off-limits to cars. And
so, to me”

EALING – JANE

I am the parent of child with autism and fought for special educational needs transport and blue badge holders to get exemption to access the LTN. This impacted my son’s journey by taxi to special school badly. No environmental impact assessment has been conducted for this LTN. SEN taxi drivers are personally liable for the fines and the combination of this and their unpaid time stuck in traffic caused many to quit. The Director of the public realm in Lewisham (who has responsibility for issuing the exemptions) told me that my son’s firm gained exemption. However, my son’s driver has been unable to confirm this with his firm.
The Director of the public realm told me in an email that they have allowed exemption for 20 SEN vehicles through the measures and named 5 firms which have exemption. That would only be 4 cars per firm and firms like my son’s firm are pretty big operations. I doubt that 20 vehicles covers all the SEN vehicles who need exemption. A big problem has been the council’s lack of communication. Blue Badge holders have had to find out about their eligibility to apply for exemption through social media.

LORNA – EALING

I have yet to follow up with the four cases Lorna sent me in detail, but Ealing has allowed Blue Badge holders through to the LTN in which they live. However, she says: “There are many issues with this as there are many blue badge holders who do not drive but rely on Taxis and now have to pay much more expensive fares. Others rely on family to drive them around. It makes it very unequal and unfair.”

ISLINGTON – EXTRA CASES

I used the case of one Islington resident in the article (for clarity, I did not know the resident before interviewing her). This is a round-up of other cases I was told about by local people and Disability Action in Islington (DAII).

One daughter of a 90 year old man was in tears after he wet himself in the car as the journey was very delayed by the LTN; another parent with a 18 year old son with Down Syndrome had to let him urinate by the side of the road as they got stuck in traffic. He then got called a ‘paedo’ by people who saw him. Another woman has a mother with Parkinsons who lives near her. She used to pop by and see her most days by car and take her children as well. This is now extremely difficult to do, combining with a stressful job with long hours in public service.

Other cases from DAII include:
• An elderly man with diabetes said he is now scared to go shopping on Holloway Road
as he will get stuck in traffic and miss the time for his insulin injection.
• A man with Parkinson’s said he was stuck in traffic going to Morrison’s for so long that
he wet himself in his wife’s car.
• A lady with arthritis says she is now spending 45 minutes in the car to visit her elderly
mother for what used to be a 5-minute journey.
• A man with a visual impairment is complaining of the increased number of scooters
and cycles now using the pavement to avoid the traffic jams.

On fatal and violent restraint: what happens after George Floyd’s murder

George Floyd was an African-American man murdered by police during an arrest in May 2020 after a store clerk alleged he had passed a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis. Police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the back of Mr Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, as the suspect and several bystanders pleaded for his life. Mr Floyd said more than 20 times that he could not breathe and was pronounced dead about an hour after an ambulance arrived. He pleaded for his mother as he lay dying. Chauvin was found guilty of murder yesterday.

George Floyd in 2016 (Wikipedia)

A tragic loss for his family, a kind of justice delivered, a sense that at last police brutality, particularly against people of colour, has been recognised. However, there is something more that we also need to urgently face – the use of sometimes fatal, and always highly traumatic restraint techniques used by police officers, prison guards, healthcare staff and even teachers – internationally. The focus on the US and police brutality is right and proper, but we should also point up that at least on this occasion it was challenged by a court case, and a verdict given. Here in the UK, hardly any such cases get prosecuted and some groups in authority don’t even have to record what they are doing.

The UK has a long and inglorious history of restraining disabled people.

Manacles from the collection at Bethlem Royal Hospital (copyright)

These are iron manacles used in Bethlem Royal Hospital (also known as
Bedlam, one of the world’s oldest hospitals for the treatment of mental
illness) until the Victorian period. They were ostensibly used to help patients from harming themselves. I visited Bedlam, as it was known, during the research for my book Scapegoat: how we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011). I remember seeing a display case for the restraints – a gag, manacles, strait waistcoats. I ran into a former patient, Peter Rowbatham, who was exhibiting art work and he told me the place hadn’t been that bad, except when nurses “set us against each other to fight…they got bored. And nobody believes us anyway.”

What Peter said goes to the heart of why so many people get restrained. The wrong kind of people who don’t get listened to, who aren’t believed, whose testimonies can be dismissed as unreliable or untruthful. Would George Floyd’s family ever have received justice if a brave young woman, Darnella Frazier, hadn’t filmed what was happening in front of her, despite fearing what the police officers might do to her, and the trauma of bearing witness?

Here in the UK, we choose all too often not to believe witnesses. Some in authority take advantage of the fact that prisoners aren’t believed, people in mental health units aren’t heard – and disabled children, as I wrote in April for Unherd, are restrained and secluded in schools without any monitoring or need to even tell parents. Actor Sally Phillips told me about her son Olly’s experience: “He was pinned to the grass face down, with his arms behind his back, by a young male teacher wearing blue latex gloves while a small group of other staff looked on. Olly later said that he’d been carried through the school by four staff, one to each limb and thrown.” Model and actor Paris Hilton has also spoken out about her experience in a Utah boarding school and told me: “That small room, covered in scratch marks and smeared blood, with no bathroom, is one of the most vivid and traumatising memories I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.”

Restraint forms part of a sanctioned group of so-called “restrictive practices” used in education, health and social care settings, as well as, unsurprisingly, in prisons. In the UK, these practices are regulated with a duty “to record and report” in all settings except education. Methods include physical restraint (with a number of different holds taught), mechanical restraint (such as being tied to a chair), chemical restraint (using drugs) and the use of seclusion, with children being sent to rooms or even tents and confined within them.

Add to this the emerging practice of imposing “blanket restrictions”, whereby children are not allowed to walk, run or play with their peers, or must visit the toilet at a set time (which is often not appropriate for some disabled children), and it’s no wonder that so many parents of disabled children are terrified for their well-being.

The government, meanwhile, has proudly launched a new behaviour hub, highlighting schools that are, as the government’s behaviour tsar, Tom Bennett, told me, low tolerance for any disruption. He argued that restraint is : “incredibly rare in mainstream schools” and that the rules about restraint are adequate because it is rare, defending the use of “removal rooms and parking students separately from their classes…a common and useful part of many mainstream schools”.

So don’t expect action in England any time soon regarding restraint in schools although at least its use is monitored in other settings such as secure children’s homes, mental health units, even if it remains over-used. However, in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland parents whose children have been restrained are agitating successfully for change. England is lagging behind.

What’s behind our need for restraint? Of course sometimes people in distress need to be held, and sometimes people may need to be prevented from harming themselves or others. Everyone accepts that. But the overuse of restraint (and seclusion) in the UK and the US suggests something more disturbing, that it is the overt exercise of power over someone who is at that moment more vulnerable than the person restraining and that it can go wrong, without any consequences for the person who has restrained another human being. As the sociologist Ervin Goffman laid out so cogently in his analysis of what he called total institutions, where a group of people (prisoners, patients etc) could be bureaucratically controlled, unequal power relationships are justified by the needs of the institution. The institution serves itself, rather than serving those it ‘treats’ (and of course the institution can be the police, just as well as it can be a school or mental health unit). We need to be vigilant of all those situations where children and adults can be subjected to unequal power relationships and make those in power accountable to the rest of us. If it hadn’t been for Darnella Frazier it is possible that the police would never have been accountable. But a bigger question looms – what about all those people who are harmed – and even die – of restraint techniques where there are no brave witnesses or cameras to show what really goes on when the powerful abuse their positions?

Why are we restraining and secluding so many disabled children?

In March this year (2021) the Equality and Human Rights Commission is expected to release the findings of a long-awaited inquiry into the use of what are called restrictive interventions in schools. Paused due to Covid, it will doubtless show the widespread use of disturbing techniques, including restraint that harms, isolation booths and other forms of enforced isolation. It will also show patchy information about the use of the techniques, as schools are not under any duty to record those interventions – even when they harm a child. I have been investigating the use of these interventions for over a year, talking regularly to campaigners, lawyers and regulators – and have done some freedom of information requests in schools as well – of which more later. This is another shocking example of how we are failing disabled people.

Disabled children are the most likely to experience these interventions. There are many aspects to restrictive interventions that are disturbing, but one particularly harrowing finding is that children as young as three have been subjected to them. The lives of disabled children matter as much as the lives of non-disabled children and the UK has long led the way in calling for the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream education. But factors including underfunding and poor training of teachers in knowing how to support disabled children at moments when they find school difficult may have contributed to frequent separation of children with special needs from their non-disabled class mates. This de facto segregation starts early, and means that disabled children’s experience of education diverges early from other children – even in what appears to be a mainstream setting. This leads to a parallel life for disabled children in which many are traumatised by their experience of education. At transition, when children become young adults, oftentimes they then experience a crisis – and end up in other institutions, such as assessment and treatment units (ATUs). They then get restrained and secluded again. I’ve written about the awful state of our ATUs previously.

That journey of harm starts in school – so what can we do about it? As I said, I submitted FOIs to schools across England before the outbreak of Covid-19 to find out more about monitoring, reporting and incidence. I am not going to release those results in full as they are already out of date. Schools won’t be the same after the end of lockdown. But what was clear from the FOIs was that few schools monitor their use of restrictive interventions, many do not report their use to parents or carers and incidence varies widely across schools. Different practices are also in play, depending on the training that schools receive from external providers. Some children have ended up with horrific injuries, including broken limbs and severe trauma. One child had their vision impaired as a result of restraint. Many end up with mental health impacts that then, as I said, may lead them to moments of crisis later in their lives – so that they end up experiencing similar restrictive interventions in ATUs, secure children homes, prison or mental health settings.

It’s time that a light was shone on the use of these practices in schools – and schools need to monitor them properly, report them in detail to parents and carers and be aware that these are hugely traumatic to experience. Of course teaching staff must also be protected from harm, but there are other ways of managing behaviour that don’t cause physical and mental harm.

Beth Morrison, who has campaigned to highlight the damage done by such techniques in schools, is in many ways responsible for the EHRC kick-starting this inquiry. Disabled children and their parents owe her a debt of thanks for her work. Other key figures include Nick Hobbs and the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland, Bruce Adamson and other parent campaigners including Deirdre Shakespeare and Elly Chapple. All of the parents have fought for the harm done to their children by restraint to be recognised and also for others affected. This has been a parent led campaign to reveal harm and create change – I hope the EHRC will honour their involvement and transform educational practice in this area for the next generation of children.

For me, as a writer and journalist who has investigated human rights abuses for many years, this investigation has opened my eyes into the rights of disabled children. I offered work on this important topic to most mainstream newspapers. Few of them replied and none of them thought it was news-worthy enough to make space for on the news pages. It doesn’t matter who suffered as a result of these interventions – even when Paris Hilton has spoken out about her experience and campaigned to highlight the issue it receives very little focus. It says a lot about how the media thinks of disability – and disabled children in particular – that this subject has received so little media attention.

Remembering the Porrajmos- the Devouring of the Roma and Sinti populations during the Holocaust

With thanks to my publishers, here is an extract from No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld Publications, 2013) about the Roma and Sinti who were murdered during the Holocaust, along with Jewish people, trade unionists, disabled people and gay and lesbian people.

by Katharine Quarmby

 No reproduction without permission from publishers

The hatred of the Roma people, intense enough in the UK, was magnified in mainland Europe. It was impossible to watch the treatment of the Roma on the continent without fear for what fate they might face should they ever be forced to leave the coun- try. Those who arrived in Britain from Europe as refugees – for example, in 1904 the ‘German Gypsies’ and then in 1911 and 1913 the ‘Gypsy Coppersmiths’ were treated with hostility and suspicion. The identity of English, Welsh and Scottish Gypsies, especially, was shaped by the Holocaust, or, as it is known by the Roma people themselves, the Porrajmos, or the Devouring (a phrase coined by the Romani scholar Ian Hancock).

Manfri Frederick Wood, an English Gypsy who fought in the Fifth Airborne Division (and who later became the first treasurer of the Gypsy Council), claimed to have been one of the first Allied soldiers to enter Belsen concentration camp after liberation. ‘When I saw the surviving Romanies, with young children among them, I was shaken. Then I went over to the ovens, and found on one of the steel stretchers the half-charred body of a girl, and I understood in one awful minute what had been going on there,’ he recalled. Charles Smith, an English Romani Gypsy and one-time chair of the Gypsy Council, later visited Auschwitz with a small delega- tion of Gypsies. ‘We stood there, a group of English Gypsies from England, there in the gas chambers. I felt sort of honoured to be there – all of us survivors of a Gypsy Holocaust that had been going on for a thousand years continuously … Auschwitz being just a peak period in Gypsy genocide.’

That sense of a collective, centuries-long experience of perse- cution remains strong today. The emotional scars also run deep, perhaps partly because this part of the Holocaust has never received the same amount of attention as the extermination of Jewish people. Yet Roma and Sinti (the second largest nomadic group) people were also judged to be racially inferior by the German authorities. They too were interned, subjected to forced labour. Many were murdered.

Historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed around twenty-five per cent of all European Roma.61 Of the slightly less than one million Roma believed to have been living in Europe before the war, at least 220,000, and possibly as many as 500,000, are estimated to have been killed.62 According to the US Holocaust Museum, German military and SS-police units allegedly shot at least thirty thousand Roma in the Baltic states and elsewhere in the occupied Soviet Union; Einsatzgruppen and other mobile killing units were targeting Roma at the same time that they were killing Jews and Communists. In occupied Serbia, German authorities are known to have killed male Roma in shooting operations during 1941 and early 1942. Women were murdered, along with children, in mobile gas vans in 1942.

In France, between three thousand and six thousand Roma are thought to have been interned and some were shipped to German concentration camps. Romanian military and police officials deported another 26,000 Roma to Transnistria, a section of south-western Ukraine placed under Romanian administration for just two years, 1941 and 1942. Thousands of those imprisoned starved or died from disease. The Ustashe, a separatist organisation that had taken charge in the power vacuum in Croatia, exhibited particularly chilling efficiency in its campaign to eradicate the Roma. Almost all of the Roma population of Croatia, around 25,000, were murdered, most at the concentration camp of Jasenovac.

Many Roma were also incarcerated by the SS at Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück. In December 1942, Himmler ordered the deportation of Roma from the so-called Greater German Reich. Most went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the camp authorities housed them in a special compound that was called the ‘Gypsy family camp’. Altogether, 23,000 Roma were deported to Auschwitz. Conditions in the Roma compound (poor sanitation, starvation levels of rations, for example), encour- aged the swift spread of deadly diseases – typhus, smallpox and dysentery among them. Epidemics severely reduced the camp population. At least 19,000 of the 23,000 nomadic people sent to Auschwitz died there.

Perhaps the cruellest part of the Roma experience, however, was the appalling series of medical experiments carried out by the infamous SS Captain Dr Josef Mengele and others, on many young Roma children. He had received authorisation to choose human subjects for experiments from among the prisoners. Mengele chose twins and children of restricted growth, many of them drawn from the Roma population imprisoned at the camp, as his sub- jects.64 Around 3,500 adult and adolescent Roma were prisoners in other German camps, and medical researchers included some Roma for studies that exposed them to typhus and mustard gas, or gave them salt water as their only source of liquid. The Roma were also used in sterilisation experiments.

After the Second World War, discrimination against Roma continued throughout Central and Eastern Europe, beginning with the great reckoning of the horrors of the concentration camps. ‘Nobody was called to testify on behalf of the Romani victims at the Nuremberg Trials,’ Hancock noted, ‘and no war crimes reparations have ever been paid to Romanies as a people.’ There were a few mentions of the atrocities carried out against Romanies at Nuremberg, but as Grattan Puxon and Donald Kenrick point out, only six references, making up some seven sentences, in the eleven volumes of the trial transcript. For decades, the Federal Republic of Germany determined that all measures taken against Roma before 1943 were legitimate official measures against per- sons committing criminal acts, not the result of policies driven by racial prejudice. Only in 1979 did the government change tack, by which time many of those eligible for compensation had died. Even today, neo-Nazi activity in many parts of central and Eastern Europe is targeted on Romanies, according to Hancock.

In the aftermath of the Porrajmos, the shattered community turned further inwards. ‘While in the camps, the Gypsies had been unable to keep up their customs – the Romainia – concerning the preparation of food and the washing of clothes. They solved the psychological problems by not speaking about the time in the camps … Few were interested anyway. In the many books writ- ten describing the Nazi period and the persecution of the Jews, Gypsies usually appear as a footnote or small section,’ said histo- rians Donald Kenrick and Gillian Taylor.68 In the early post-war years, news trickled out that the Nazi regime had secretly collected lists of Gypsies to target and intern if they invaded Britain. The UK government had built camps for Gypsies fighting or working at home for the war effort; these were swiftly dismantled once the war was over.69 Many British Gypsies and Irish Travellers who had served during the Second World War were left with a firm sense of determination: never again.

As Charles Smith wrote to conclude his visit to Auschwitz: ‘The thing that haunts me most was a photograph of a little girl age about ten or eleven years, hair cropped, wearing her striped cloth, looking straight into the camera, her eyes filled with tears … a picture of her will always be in my mind. I will remember. I will be vigilant. As a Gypsy I owe that to my ancestors.’

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The new dawn of disability activism – where it started, where it’s going

2020 was grim, right? I hate to say this, but I’m looking forward to the year turning, and that 2021 brings us vaccination (everywhere) and fewer deaths and serious illnesses because of Covid-19.

One of the main communities affected particularly harshly by Covid, in terms of excess deaths, has been disabled people. This year marks the 25th anniversary since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act, and there’s been a lot of assessment of how much has been won and lost. My publishers, Granta, re-issued a chapter of my book, Scapegoat, which looks at the rise of the movement and you can read it here, free of charge, at Granta Magazine. You can also buy the book on the same link.

I hope that this coming year we’ll see more disability activism, as journalists and activists assess progress so far.

I’m going to be doing more journalism this year, especially on disabled children and women.