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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
About a month ago, I designed and sent out a short survey about disability hate crime, concentrating on motivation, but also covering a few other questions such as location of incidents, gender and race of attackers and nature of the incident or attack. This was done under the auspices of the Disability Hate Crime Network, for which I work as one of the pro bono co-ordinators. Grateful thanks to all the co-ordinators, for all their input – it was so valuable – particularly Simon Green’s thoughts in the very early stages, when we came up with the idea, and later Anne Novis, Stephen Brookes, Mark Cutter, Mel Close, Rosemary Irwin, Sarah Hewitt and Beverley Smith.
We are all very grateful to everyone who has done the survey – it is only a small survey, but we believe it does shed some light on the motivation for some attacks, and hopefully it will lead to more detailed research in the future.
Thanks also to the Guardian newspaper, which has commissioned me to write a short comment piece on the research in Guardian Society. Thanks to Survey Monkey for the survey template. It’s appreciated. It allows not-for-profit organisations like ourselves, with no funding, to carry out small bits of research for free (except for our time). We hope it contributes to the wider debate on what fuels disability hate crime.
Summary of key findings from disability hate crime motivation survey
Question 1: do you define yourself to be a disabled person?
89% of those completing the survey defined themselves as disabled people.
Some of those who didn’t self-define were completing the survey because other family members had experienced hate crimes.
65 shared their conditions, with some explaining they had done because they felt it had triggered an attack.
One person, who had a number of conditions including anxiety and depression came home after suffering a horrific sexual assault and murderous attack. They wrote: “My neighbours had seen my facial injuries and saw I had lost my front teeth and had put two and two together after watching the local news on TV. They could see how vulnerable I was, and this was when everything escalated so badly that I sold my house to a landlord, moved out and had to rent for a while…I did this as I was desperate to escape the bullying for my daughter and myself.”
Another, with rheumatoid arthritis, causing impaired mobility, was targeted because of their blue badge, as was an amputee, who was shouted at for using a disabled parking bay and called a ‘scrounger’. Another wheelchair user felt they were targeted for having a visible disability.
Question 2: have you experienced a hate crime or hate incident?
87.2% of those responding had experienced a hate crime or incident.
11% had not.
61 explained more about their experiences, which were wide-ranging. Some flashpoints, however, were familiar – public transport, disabled parking bays, jealousy about perceived ‘perks’ and ‘not looking disabled’:
One person said: “I have had cars parked close to the rear of my car to make it difficult for me to load my wheelchair…I’ve experienced a number of incidents. I’ve been chastised
for managing to walk to my front gate without my walking stick, (it’s only a couple of steps). I’ve been insulted for using a disabled toilet and slapped on a bus for using a designated seat. I’ve twice been reported to the DWP for being a ‘bogus’ claimant…had my car repeatedly scratched (16 reports to police), had my car spat on and an egg thrown on it.
Another said: “I was having much needed repairs to our conservatory when a neighbour shouted over the hedge ‘if I was living on benefits I’d have a conservatory too!’ The conservatory came with the house and was over twenty years old.
Another reported: “I’ve had a man trying to take away my walking stick saying I was “too young and beautiful” to use it. I’ve had two men try to shove me out of the way on a pavement because I was walking too slowly and they were trying to get to a pub,
On occasion, children were involved: “I was deliberately barged into by more than one of a group of 8 year French old children who were on the same site as a convention I attended. The children from this language school were harassing disabled attenders of our convention, kicking sticks/crutches out from under people and barging into them “accidentally”. Their supervising adults weren’t supervising properly. My friend who was with me didn’t see the first child bash into me, but she heard them making remarks about my arms and saw the second child bash into me. I was furious as I had noticed the children barging adults off the paths around the site. I complained to the university venue who were useless and my convention organisers who were superb and reported it to the police alongside a number of other disablist, LGB and T phobic hatecrimes our bi convention got on that site. The police took a statement and went around pestering the university venue management till the children’s supervisors were found and doing their supervising which reduced the harassment a bit. The police then didn’t follow up as promised which I found frustrating and I knew no charges could be pressed as identifying the specific children would be hard.”
Another talked about public transport: “I was travelling on a bus to shopping one day and the bus was quite full but a guy who had a pram wanted to sit with his partner and wanted to sit at the front where I was sitting and demanded I move. I said no, and tried to explain about my disability. He called me a ‘spas’ and a ‘mong’ and said I should not be left out.
A lack of understanding of disability is evident:
“I was asked why I use a wheelchair some times but had been seen using sticks on others days, I tried to explain that my condition varies from day to day and on days when I can walk I try to do so. I was then told I was just fat and lazy and was doing it to get benefits. I have been abused for using a blue badge. Been called a spastic, and to go to bloody work…I have been spat at.”
Of the 61 who gave further details about their experience, 11 mentioned being called ‘scroungers’ or being told to get off benefits, or that they were too lazy to work.
Question 3 – What was the location of the hate crime or incident?
The locations chimed with places that both the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and I, in both Getting Away with Murder and in my book, Scapegoat, have identified as flashpoints for disabled people in previous research.
24% of attacks happened at home; 57% on the street, 4% in care environments, 20% on public transport, 12.8% in schools or educational establishments, 3% in hospitals and more than one place – 28.5%. This last category allowed people to name other places where attacks took place as well. 26 people added extra comments. A small number reported being attacked or harassed on social media or at work.
Other attacks happened in pubs, supermarkets and in the car. One person said: “This is not a single incident, rather an accumulation of incidents that are very similar. It makes you dread using public transport at times.” 6 out of 26 said that attacks happened in supermarkets and shops.
Question 4: What do you think the motivation for the attack was?
67 answered, and 33 skipped this question.
Interestingly, few people – two – pin-pointed ‘scrounger rhetoric’ as behind disability hate crime although it is important to stress that a larger number had mentioned it in previous answers. 34 said ‘disability hate’ or ‘disability’ without going further. A number – 7- felt that ‘vulnerability’ – a feeling that the attacker could ‘get away with attacking them without any come-back had increased the hatred towards them. There was also a clear theme of jealousy toward perceived ‘perks’ of disability – which some non-disabled people had tried to either exploit or had attacked the disabled person for, out of hostility. One person felt they had been targeted because of their ethnicity and disability.
One person said: “I think the main motivation is “because they can” .. I am in no position to defend myself.. Although the harassment escalated when I took over the tenancy of a local authority garage located on an access road these people believe to be “theirs” (it isn’t)….After taking on the tenancy I started to experience an increase in frequency of incidents of abuse, threats and harrassment culminating in me no longer using the garage, hardly ever leaving the flat and if I do getting in the car and going away from here, no longer sitting in the garden with a book/the radio, constantly being jumpy and nervous, etc..”
The person who experienced the sexual assault wrote: “They saw me ill following the serious assault and I believe the motive was my vulnerability (I had had no problems with these particular neighbours when my health had been normal).”
Another felt that they had been exploited and targeted:
“They saw my disability and were aware of benefits I received. One person became my boyfriend and would threaten to finish with me or harm himself if I didn’t give him money, or buy him mobile phone s. I ended up with eight mobile phone contracts, which I later found out he was selling and using the money for drugs.”
Another wrote:”I wish I knew. People are just plain spiteful. I was an easy target who could never fight back physically, so, I was a punchbag, both physically and mentally.”
One person felt it was a mixture of motives: “exploitation of vulnerable people, attacking someone who can’t fight back, your word against theirs, sadism”.
Another felt it was partly due to the benefits crackdown: “Bigotry, fuelled by propaganda against people on benefits”.
Another person saw it as mixed too: “Venting a prejudice is I think the main motivation. There’s usually some kind of ‘useless’ part of the labelling, a bit of ageism, a bit of disablism, and a very unpleasant bit of invective. Plus a ‘get out of my way, or why are you blocking everything up’, or some such. A typical one, ‘get out of my fucking way you old hag’, or ‘bitch or get back to your shithole you geriatric cow’.”
There was a sense of the perceived uselessness and invisibility of disability. One person wrote: “On one occasion when I fell a man just stepped over me like I was vermin… I have been shoved backwards into the lift as I attempted to leave. Two women walked past me – instead of allowing me to move forward they just carried on walking, pushing me backwards back into the lift door. I felt ignored and overall humiliated.”
Another wrote: “Most of the abuse is from strangers , who now think that every one who is disabled is lying about being ill. Because this government are spreading so many lies, regarding us. Also relations who think you can be better and go to work as you are not ill every day. Also I am sorry to say at church through ignorance. Also benefit assessments. I have also been pushed off of sticks by a stranger who was very abusive.”
This was echoed by others, along with a strong sense of jealousy:
“Disability hostility, resentment as think I get money, that I don’t work or worth helping. Jealousy of adapted car, irritation as may be in their way on street, young people think its funny, therefore worth ridiculing me, some truly believe we are drain on society, should never be allowed to be born or live, others think easy target.”
Another identified a freak-show element: “Mockery of disability. The teenagers concerned were known to the police and to local school teachers as perennial troublemakers.”
These came up again: The perpetrators were three young women who were shouting at a middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome and calling him brain dead….Their motivation appears to be ignorance and/or perceived comedy value.”
Question 5: What gender was your attacker?
69 respondents answered this question and 31 skipped it.
30% of sole attackers were male, and 17% female. Interestingly, there was more than one attacker in 49% of cases and in most of those women were involved (accounting for the rest of the attackers). It’s worth mentioning that in the latest Crown Prosecution Service Hate Crime Report, women are defendants in around 25% of disability hate crimes, but only around 13-15% of other forms of hate crimes, except crimes against older people, where they are also defendants in around 22% of the cases. Clearly, as I have written before, there needs to be far more research on the role of women in disability hate crime (and older people, a cross-cutting group).
One person recalled:
“Pushed from chair by women, verbally abused by both men and women. Usually older people.”
Another said: “Male in most incidents, some verbal incidents have included females in group (at least one group appeared to be a family with adult children), one verbal incident involved a female only.”
Another wrote: “Worst incident – an older white woman. Otherwise, mostly men.”
Another wrote: “Two separate incidents attacked by black male gang of young men, attack on street Young mother with child abused me in shop car park.
Question 6: What was the approximate age of your attacker?
Age of attackers: 61 answered this, and 39 skipped it. The percentages did not add up to 100%, because of group attacks.
Under 16: 19.67% (12)
16-20: 18.03% (11)
21-30: 32.79% (20)
31-40: 32.79% (20)
41-50: 29.51 (18)
51-60: 11.48% (7)
61 and over 11.48% (7)
Prefer not to say 3.28% (2)
Many pointed out they were attacked by more than one person, so more than one age group but perhaps there is a small chink of light that the percentages of attacks by younger people are slightly lower than people in the midrange for age.
Question 7: What do you think was the ethnic group of your attacker?
63 answered and 37 skipped
90% of attackers were white, 5% were mixed heritage, and other counted for 5%
White people are slightly over-represented as attackers in this survey – the last census found that 86% of the population identify as white.
Question 8: What is your gender?
71 answered and 29 skipped.
53% of respondents were female, and 45% male, with others preferring not to say.
Question 9: What is your ethnicity?
94% were white, 1% were mixed heritage, 1% was a highly identifiable racial group (so I am not including it here) and the remaining preferred not to say.
If you would like to join the Network and have an interest in disability hate crime, please go to:
If you would like to know more about disability hate crime, you can read the first report I wrote:
If you would like to read my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011), an investigation into disability hate crime in the UK and further afield, you can buy it in good bookshops or online at:
Whilst I applaud so much of the human rights reporting that takes place in the world, it paints on a large canvas. We think of it being about combating the death penalty, pointing out human rights violations in combat zones and protecting the rights of asylum seekers – all noble aims that I fully support. But when human rights journalism – and human rights – inconvenience us or affect our property rights, things become a little more uncomfortable. So here’s my thoughts on that – comments please.
Is there a hierarchy of human rights and human rights reporting?
Looking back over my many years of writing and making films about human rights issues, I’m struck by which stories and groups get the most publicity and which stories are more difficult to fund, write and make. I believe that just as there is a hierarchy of rights, as discussed by human rights scholars for many decades, there is also a hierarchy of human rights reporting.
War reporting and the human rights violations that occur in conflict zones, are seen as what one might call ‘classic’ human rights journalism. It’s dangerous work. Last year, the International Federation of Journalists estimated that over 100 journalists and media workers were directly killed because of their work – and around half of that number were engaged in human rights reporting.
I was one of the many journalists who travelled to Rwanda after the genocide that killed at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. (It’s noteworthy that the killing of the Pygmy people, the Twa, was far less covered.) I was there in 1997, to record the aftermath, with BBC Panorama and the film we made, Valentina’s Story, produced by Mike Robinson and reported by Fergal Keane, is a classic piece of human rights reporting. It drew attention to the genocide through the eyes of one child survivor. In 1999 I went back with Fergal, as a BBC Newsnight producer, to make two more classic human rights films, gathering evidence on rights violations during the genocide that could be forwarded to the Arusha War Crimes Tribunal. This kind of journalism is done today by dedicated correspondents throughout the world – from CNN to Al Jazeera, to the BBC and to PBS, in war and conflict zones as various as the Central Africa Republic, Syria and many areas of the Middle East. It’s crucial that such journalism continues.
I have moved on to smaller scale, intimate human rights journalism that I also consider important, but which is far less well funded and at times controversial. I think this is because the very rights of those under fire are seen as questionable and not mainstream – even by those inside the human rights field. This means that the funding for reporting on them, and the importance ascribed to them is far less – what one might call inconvenient and unpopular human rights journalism. I think this is a pity.
In 2012 I looked at how human rights organisations wrote and campaigned on disability rights for Amnesty International’s magazine. I found that few saw them as central to their work – in fact, in the drop-down menu of rights on the Amnesty International’s website, disability was not mentioned as a category – unlike childrens’ rights, gay and lesbian rights, women’s rights and refugee rights. Happily, at the annual general meeting last year, it was overwhelmingly decided to remedy this. Disabled peoples’ rights are still seen as segregated from other rights – as if human rights groups mirror some of the divisions between disabled people and non-disabled people in Britain today. During the Leveson Inquiry, similarly, despite a campaign by disabled people and their organisations, none were called to give oral evidence on how they were treated in the media, something I and many others wrote and campaigned about at the time.
Leveson did, however, take oral evidence from women’s rights organizations, transgender organizations, and refugee organisations – something I completely agreed with – but I did not agree with the lack of oral evidence from disabled peoples’ organisations. Eventually, some campaigners (I was one of them) were invited to give written evidence, but it is disappointing that this division was so evident in such a key inquiry, when the stereotyping of disabled people by certain sections of the media, especially around benefit cuts, is clearly evidenced to have caused a worsening of public attitudes towards them.
This lack of understanding of the discrimination faced by disabled people meant that it took many years for me and others to get the real and pressing issue of disability hate crime recognized. The key intervention of Lord Ken Macdonald, then the Director of Public Prosecutions, who called disability hate crime a ‘scar on the conscience’ of the criminal justice system was one of the reasons why that change happened – but it was a long time coming, and human rights organisations are still playing catch-up when it comes to integrating disability rights into a wider rights agenda.
Disability rights can be seen as inconvenient to the general public (think of wheelchair spaces on buses, and how they become contested spaces with parents with pushchairs, for example) and this attitude is mirrored in journalism itself.
Lastly, we come on to unpopular human rights journalism – and this is where I would place the rights of Britain’s nomads, which come into conflict with another highly cherished set of British rights – property rights. Essentially the rights of Britain’s nomads to enjoy a life free from discrimination, to enjoy the right to family life, the right to education, the right to vote, the right to a decent standard of living and housing come into conflict with British planning law. This was played out in Court 76 of the High Court on October 12, 2011, as I reported for the Economist, when the Dale Farm Irish Traveller residents lost a crucial legal battle against their eviction. I wrote at the time: “Dale Farm has become a symbol of an increasingly bitter dispute about the rights of Gypsies and Travellers, around a fifth of whom have nowhere legal to live. Basildon council argues that it is simply enforcing planning law, by which all citizens must abide. This was echoed by Mr Justice Ouseley. He said that there must be “public respect for and confidence in” planning law, and that although Basildon council had not identified alternative pitches where the travellers could live, those deemed homeless had been offered “bricks and mortar” accommodation. The decision by Dale Farm residents to decline such housing, due to their “cultural aversion” to it, he said, was their own responsibility. He pointed out that the Travellers were breaching the law by remaining on site.”
The eviction of Dale Farm left some 86 families without a secure home, and cost Basildon Council millions of pounds. Many of the families still live roadside, in poor conditions. Basildon was right in legal terms, but who has won? Children are no longer in school, mothers are on anti-depressants, families do not have running water and local tax-payers are footing an enormous bill. There has to be a better way of honouring property rights than creating a situation in which the human rights of these particular Traveller families are so completely ignored, three years on. But such views are unpopular, and the rights of Britain’s nomads are questioned, constantly. Those who seek to defend their rights find it hard to get commissions. This is unpopular human rights journalism – but it is important, all the same.
I am grateful for all the journalism I’ve been able to do, over so many years – from Rwanda to Dale Farm, to small-scale human rights stories for Private Eye. That’s our job and it’s worthwhile – at all its levels: popular, unpopular, inconvenient and small scale. But the hierarchy does make me uncomfortable.
Social media was afire yesterday with disabled people furious with the latest paper from the think-tank, Policy Exchange, on extending the policy of work-fare to more unemployed people (with, it does seem, a particular target of disabled unemployed people).
I want to look at the way in which the questions were written, as the support of the general public is being prayed in aid as this doubtful policy is about to be extended.
Earlier this year I wrote a report on care and support within the family for the Centre for the Modern Family, and I was also privy to polling questions before they were sent out to the general public by a polling organisation. As someone who has written on disability, on and off, for seven years, I was surprised that polling organisation use such antediluvean phrases such as ‘mental disability’. What does it mean? Presented with such a phrase, does a member of the public think of a person with a learning difficulty, a person with a mental health condition, or someone with Autism or Aspergers? I asked the polling organisation what they meant. They didn’t really know, they just knew that they wanted to differentiate from a physical disability. So I suggested ‘physical or other disability’ which worked fine. So ‘mental disability’ is a/meaningless, b/confusing. Then look at the phrasing of the question again – page 16 of the Policy Exchange report.
“Imagining a law was enacted which required people who had been out of work for 12 months or more to do community work, which groups of people, if any, do you think should be excluded from such a law? (% of respondents saying category should be excluded)”
Then came several categories, such as “Mothers with pre-school children (0 – 4 years old), for which 67% of those polled thought they should be excluded, people with medical conditions preventing them from working to full capacity, (52%) and fathers with pre-school children (0 – 4 years old) – (38%). Then came the two ‘disability’ categories aforementioned. Look at the phrasing of the questions:
“People with mental disabilities who are capable of working” – of which 25% said they should be excluded from working “People with physical disabilities who are capable of working” – of which 22% said the same.
The question is skewed. It’s badly phrased. The other questions do not say: “Mothers with pre-school children who are capable of working” or ‘fathers with pre-school children who are capable of working”, for example. These two groups are the only ones where the question itself adds in a presumption of capability to work that the person who is polled then has to disregard in order to say no to the question. It is flawed and I am surprised that YouGov allowed the question through.
Last two points – the reason I was originally surprised by the findings in this poll are that recent polls suggest a softening in attitudes towards unemployed people. So I went and looked at the data. Then I wasn’t surprised any more, because the questions were so poorly drafted.
My last point is this – Policy Exchange has published many excellent reports over the years and many have not been party political. In fact I co-wrote one, in 2008, auditing the lamentable state of the Building Schools for the Future programme, in which far too many expensive consultants, lawyers and contractors were pocketing (quite legally) large amounts of cash for ‘transforming education’ rather than building decent, modest schools. Then Policy Exchange made an effort to draw in people like me who might be seen as neutral or from the left to balance out their profile. This paper, however, looks blatantly political and I believe it does their profile no good at all.
Lord Justice Leveson took evidence from 184 oral witnesses on just one module alone – the relationship between the press and the public. He took further oral evidence from many more people and organisations for three separate modules – the press and the police, the press and politicians and the future of the press.
But despite much campaigning, one group which is clearly victimised by some sections of the press – disabled people – did not get the chance to give oral evidence.
Submissions on disability from members of the public to the inquiry outnumbered those from any other equality strand, such as transgender, migrants and refugees, (except that of women). Four women’s groups, one transgender group and one refugee group gave oral evidence, but disabled people were barred from doing so. This was despite the fact that unlike any other group (except, perhaps, gypsies and travellers), they have been the target since the coalition came to power of what I would term an orchestrated witch-hunt by certain sectors of the media.
Leveson could have exposed a very modern witch-hunt: politicians, happy to demonise vulnerable British citizens for political advantage. And their aides who whisper dangerous misleading statistics to favoured journalists. Two newspapers – The Sun and the Express – even run popular campaigns against “scrounging”, in which they encourage the public to denounce people they judge to be disability benefit fraudsters. This has had an effect on disabled people in Britain – one such, Peter Greener, who has MS, was harassed for three months by his neighbour, who called him a scrounger because he can sometimes walk. He considered committing suicide, such was his despair. He’s not an isolated case either – disabled people regularly speak of their everyday experiences, of being harassed as ‘skivers’, “scroungers” and “fakers” on the street if they dare to be out and about.
Read more on the Leveson inquiry: the key questions answered
This is not surprising: the media campaign against them has been hugely successful. Focus group research by Glasgow Media Group confirms that the general public believes that 50 to 70 per cent of those on disability benefits are fraudulent (they also found that there has been a tripling in the use of words such as “scrounger” in the last five years in media reports).
Those false statistics (the real figure for disability benefit fraud, from the government itself, demonstrates that is under 1 per cent) are peddled, it appears, by some in government. Leveson could have exposed the triangulation of a very modern witch-hunt: politicians, happy to demonise vulnerable British citizens for political advantage. And their aides who whisper misleading and dangerous statistics to the third group – favoured journalists.
But instead he displayed the nervousness around disability that so characterises the elite – he didn’t understand the politics of it so instead he just glossed over the problem, eventually accepting written evidence on media reporting of disability from a few chosen organisations and individuals.
I’m glad that our evidence was finally accepted, but Leveson missed an opportunity in oral hearings to expose the nexus of power that can be used, with devastating effect, to demonise one group. This would have benefited other groups as well and enabled targeted groups, rather than individuals to hold government and the press to account.
So while I’m delighted with the forensic approach taken to skewer both politicians and journalists involved in the dark arts of media management and victimisation of individuals and applaud Leveson for it, I would have liked him to go further.
I was at the Home Office yesterday, attending a meeting to look at the implementation of the Equality Commission’s report on disability targeted harassment in the police service, in my role as one of the advisors to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the National Policing Improvement Agency on this subject. I was really heartened to see both the commitment to change by senior police officers and their interest in the subject. We’ve come a long way from my first days investigating disability hate crime in 2007, when police officers would deny that disability hate crime existed. I can’t say much about the specific proposals but expect good work to come through on perpetrators, motivations and more linking up with other agencies. I am pushing for the Crown Prosecution Service Scrutiny Panels to start dip-sampling safeguarding cases – cases of so-called ‘vulnerable adult’ abuse that get lost in the safeguarding system and rarely reach the police. I believe that is where the missing disability hate crime cases are – and we need to find them and prosecute the perpetrators.
At the end of the meeting I had a chat to one of the Government’s senior advisors on hate crime. I wanted to know whether there was any data on crimes committed against Gypsies and Travellers. There isn’t really for several reasons. One is that until the 2011 Census Gypsies, Roma and Travellers couldn’t even define themselves as such – they had to tick the ‘white other’ box. I have to tick the mixed race ‘other’ box myself, as a half-Iranian, and it always irritates me but I understand we are a small-ish community. This isn’t true of Gypsies and Travellers- they are one of the biggest minority ethnic groups in the country – without even mentioning the ever-growing Roma community. And the British Crime Survey, which proved so useful to me when I was scoping the scale of disability hate crime (before it was being collected by police forces) is useless when it comes to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers – because it visits households and not, apparently, sites. So their experience of crime is uncollected – and therefore little, or nothing is done about it. As a senior police officer told me a few years ago, if crime isn’t measured, it can’t become a target to be tackled. So crimes against these communities will remain the lowest of priorities.
We are half-way up the mountain on tackling disability hate crime. We are not even on the foothills when it comes to tackling crimes against these communities.
This is my first blog here and, given the time of year, I wanted to use it to reflect on a very full year – and to anticipate a little of what 2012 is likely to bring.
In June 2011 my first book for adults, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, was published (Portobello Press, 2011) and launched to a kindly audience of faces at the Department of Health. Many of my great friends from the disability movement were there – my ally and colleague on the Disability Hate Crime Network, Stephen Brookes, Mike Smith and others from the Equality Commission, Mandy Sanghera, who has done so much to combat honour-based violence, John Pring, whose own book, Longcare Survivors, was also published this year and my very patient family, who have accompanied me to many crime locations over the last few years, as I researched my book.
I went on to speak about the book at Stoke Newington Literary Festival (a very rainy day, and thanks to Richard Rieser, who drove all the way back from Cornwall to discuss Scapegoat with me there), then later at Hay and Edinburgh. I’ve been humbled by the generosity of the audiences too – so many brilliant disabled people, experts in their field, who have taken the time to come and talk to me at the festivals and conferences I’ve attended this year, to discuss particular themes of the book. I’ve discussed the troubling semantics of mate crime with Joanna Perry, now of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe but latterly at the Crown Prosecution Service, friendship theory with Ruth Bashall, who runs Disability Action Waltham Forest and other themes with Bert Massie (the former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, who set me on the right road for disability rights many years ago) and others, too numerous to mention.
Next year I’m already speaking at Bath, Bristol, Yeovil and Glasgow Festivals – but I’m also researching my next book, on Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, both in the UK and abroad. Having reported on Dale Farm for the last five years, it was a bit of a shock to arrive there in August this year and find that activists had ensconsed themselves for Dale Farm’s last stand. Later, of course, I was there, reporting for the Economist, as the eviction finally happened, at great economic and social cost. That’s part of the story I intend to tell, – but also the story of Meriden, where a small number of Scottish Gypsies are living, and how their presence has split the village, and further afield, travelling to France and Eastern Europe to tell the wider story of Roma persecution.
I do feel very lucky, to have been given the opportunity to tell these stories of two different parts of our community, and even be paid, albeit not very much, to do so. It’s a privilege – and despite the recession, and the hardship it has brought us all, somehow, these stories deserve to be told, told well, and told truthfully.
I’ve thought long and hard about the question that this kind of story-telling poses me as a journalist and writer too – is it legitimate for me to do so, when I’m not a Gypsy, when my personal experience of disability is more limited than that of so many other people I have interviewed? Well, I wouldn’t be writing the stories if I didn’t feel that I could, or should. I think my skills as an investigative journalist can bring something else to the mix. I can’t (and won’t) tell my personal story – that’s for individual Gypsies and Travellers to do – but I can convince a wider audience that their individual tales have a context that needs explaining – in how society treats them, how the criminal justice system treats them, and what the legacy of history is. That’s legitimate, I think – my work is a small part of the collective narrative, complementing the many wonderful memoirs, written by Gypsies and Travellers, and their growing academic work on the issue. And if it serves to educate a somewhat jaded public, which has only seen Dale Farm and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding this year, I hope that’s worth doing.