By Geoff Adams-Spink
A handful of violent and degrading attacks on disabled people have provoked outrage among the press and public. But are they isolated cases or one end of a spectrum of intimidation and violence that many disabled people encounter?
Tom Shakespeare is an academic based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He is also a person of restricted growth. He was travelling on the city's metro recently when he was verbally humiliated and intimidated by a group of schoolgirls.
Was he a victim of a disability hate crime? Mr Shakespeare thinks not, but others in his position would be less forgiving of their tormentors.
According to Mr Shakespeare, what happened to him was bullying - and this should not be confused with some of the extreme offences that have been committed against a few disabled people.
"I think there's a danger of exaggerating," he says. "There's been a small number of truly appalling situations, but in the most part people don't hate disabled people."
Mr Shakespeare believes that people who are, themselves, insecure through social exclusion or lack of self-belief, pick on others.
"Disabled people are often the victims - we are vulnerable and, perhaps, remind people of their own inadequacies; it makes them feel better to put us down."
Last year, Christine Lakinski - a woman in her 50s with learning and physical disabilities - had collapsed in the street near her home in Hartlepool when she was set upon by a neighbour.
She was covered in shaving foam, urinated upon and filmed on a mobile phone as she lay dying.
Despite the horrendous circumstances of her death, the police were unable to prove that her assailant, Anthony Anderson, was motivated by hatred of her because of her disabilities. Mr Shakespeare, a campaigner on disability rights, doubts too that this amounts to disability hatred.
Yet Miss Lakinski's brother, Mark Lakinski, is in no doubt that this was a disability hate crime - it was something she had experienced for most of her life.
Christine Lakinski - humiliated and filmed as she lay dying
"Christine might as well have had a target on her head saying 'attack me, victimise me'," he says, reflecting on her death in July 2007 and Anderson's trial three months later.
The curvature of her spine, her old, malodorous clothes, her unkempt and uncombed hair and heavy smoking gave her the appearance of a "bag lady".
"When she was challenged she wouldn't walk away - they would think she was probably comical because she would stamp her feet, shout back at them, pull a funny face and burst into tears."
What Christine experienced in her last few moments of life would appear to be a more exaggerated version of the sort of behaviour that she encountered most of the time.
The line between what is and isn't a hate crime against disabled people is not always clear. Some might ask why the question matters - shouldn't the law punish vicious acts against defenceless people whatever the motivation. But laws which came into force three years ago gave courts the power to increase sentences in cases when a crime can be shown to have been motivated by hostility towards someone's disability.
Yet Mr Shakespeare says the question is a distraction which could deter some people with disabilities from leading normal lives.
"I think for the vast majority of disabled people, bullying is the problem: it's things like folks with learning difficulties being harassed on the housing estate where they live or children in school being picked on."
He says that this is a serious problem and that everything should be done to punish those responsible.
"In some very rare cases this low-level bullying and harassment turns into fully-fledged hate crime."
FIND OUT MORE
The Hidden Crime of Hate is on BBC Radio 4 Tuesday 19 August at 2000 BST
But this is not how it appears to disability rights activists like Ruth Bashall who lives and works in east London. As a wheelchair user and a lesbian she has encountered hate crime first-hand.
At a recent meeting of disabled people, she was shocked by how many had shared her experience.
"Out of forty people in the room, I saw probably two-thirds of them nod - even I was shocked by that and I've worked on disability hate crime," she says.
"If you look at the whole experience of hate crime... and at the extreme end of that, of murder, it starts with calling someone a name because they are different."
She says that where such behaviour is tolerated, it usually escalates.
"It's a hatred or a fear of difference - while some of the small incidents in themselves don't amount to much, the cumulative effect on disabled people is enormous."
HATE CRIME VICTIMS?
Kevin Davies (above, left), who had epilepsy, was kept in a shed, tortured and eventually died
Brent Martin, (above, right) who had learning difficulties, died after being punched, kicked and stamped on
None of the perpetrators in either attack was sentenced for a disability hate crime
Although attackers who are motivated by a hatred of disability now face longer prison terms, there have only been a few cases. In the course of my investigation, I could only identify two cases where this had been used.
For Katharine Quarmby, a journalist who works for Disability Now magazine, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) place too much emphasis on a person's vulnerability, which means that they fail to look for evidence of hate crime.
It is very difficult to get at the extent of the problem: the CPS's own figures have been gathered in such a way that they include crimes committed by, as well as against, disabled people.
Whether it is "bullying", "harassment", "intimidation" or "hate crime" depends upon your perspective.
What is clear is that there are people who despise others for their difference and who behave in ways that make them feel victimised, excluded and afraid.
And according to Ruth Bashall and others, until the courts label these offences clearly for what they are the problem is unlikely to get any better.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Travelling home from town via the bus one afternoon with my friend and his brother who has downs syndrome- a group of young school dropouts were making derogatory remarks about him and were flicking bus tickets and things over at us. When confronted about how shameful their actions had been they simply replied " Well it's equal rights for the disabled innit - they don't get treated any differently". I'm not sure which is the scariest part of that remark- whether it's normal for them to treat people in this manner or whether they don't see a difference between berating someone with a condition as opposed to someone in good health.
Beth Jeffrey, Glasgow Scotland
After an accident that left me with a spinal injury I thought that I would be quite venerable to bullying or abuse. I have been very surprised, I hate stereo typing but in reality I have found people fall into four types: 1 - Those that are embarrassed; 2- a very small number that obviously think I am deaf and stupid otherwise I wouldn't be in a chair; they normally bend down and speak slowly and loudly! 3 - Those that don't see the wheel chair and treat me normally. 4 - Finally, there is the vast majority who want to help; it is some in this group that surprise me the most; some of the keenest to help are those that are old or disabled themselves and then there is that group that many perceive to be socially undesirable, the youngsters that people are afraid of, hoodies and gangs both whites and coloured that seem to intimidate us. It is often these that rush to open doors, offer to go into a shop that is inaccessible to get a shop assistant or help put my chair in the car. My dilemma is that I am fiercely independent but feel guilty if I refuse help in case it puts people off offering those that really need it.Dave, Loughborough
While very sympathetic to the points raised in this article, i am uncomfortable with trying to find reasons and motivation behind behaviour that is often unreasonable and unjustifiable. I think people are going to be targeted for whatever perceived weakness the perpetrator identifies. I believe that if you were to go into a room and ask 40 able bodies people if they been the victim of 'hate crime' (isn't all crime perpetrated against a person on the grounds of they way they look, sound, where they are from etc, hate crime?) then the majority would say yes. Disabled people may be experiencing attacks that may have happened to anyone who was in view of the assailant at that time for whatever reason.
Andrew Grimm, Edinburgh
I was on a bus in London once and a lady in a wheelchair got on in the middle section via the wheelchair ramp. The driver yelled up the bus in a rude voice "OI. Wheelchair. Where you getting off?" When I got off I took a note of the bus number and then reported him to the bus company but didn't hear anything thing back. I hope he got into trouble because it was completely out of order.
This article disturbs me. It seems to tolerate bullying as somehow acceptable. Why is picking on someone weaker than you passed off as normal behaviour rather than the vicious, anti-social behaviour it is? It should not be tolerated.
Jo Edkins, Cambridge
A person being assaulted or killed because of their difference to a perceived idea of 'normal' should be treated consistently in the eyes of the law. It shouldn't matter whether that difference is skin colour, religious belief, sexuality or disability. That it needs to be labelled a hate crime for that to happen is strange commentary on our legal system. The crime is violence against another human being and the reasons are fear and ignorance.
I don't think this has anything specifically to do with disability. It's just a different manifestation of the sadism that makes some people torture small animals or abuse kids. Disabled people are just less able to defend themselves so make easier victims for sadistic cowards.
I'd say it's just plain old bullying. Bullies always require an easy target as a victim and some of the easiest targets are those with unusual physical features or disabilities. 'Disability hate crime' only exists in the minds of a journalists wanting to make a story more dramatic. You may as well say someone who is picked on for having a funny accent is a victim of 'Accent hate crime' It's bullying, plain and simple, so stop trying to make up yet another 'social issue' and thus muddy the waters.
I think it is appalling behaviour. Call it want you like, it still results to the same outcome. I do not understand how people have the audacity to commit such heinous to a person that is physically or mentally disabled. How would they like it if the boot was on the other foot? No matter what the disability, surely they need support and care, not bullying and intimidation. It is so sad that even a handful of people make themselves feel better about there own pathetic existences that they could do such a thing. I am disgusted.