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Is disability hate crime new, or has it always been with us?

In this post I’m trying to decide whether society has become more hateful of people with disabilities over the years, or whether it’s just the nature of the discrimination and abuse that has changed.

Live Eels and Grand Pianos” tells the story of Kathy and Charlie Bradford from before World War I to the 1980s. Most of the people that my parents got to know (neighbours,workmates, officialdom, etc) could not have been more supportive of our family.Sometimes Charlie and Kathy depended on the kindness of strangers, as this excerpt from the book (it’s describing the 1950s and 1960s) explains:

“Sometimes Charlie would fall over in the house or garden and couldn’t get up. By the time I was eleven, I could get him up if I was there, but there were many occasions when I wasn’t. When that happened Kathy would wait outside the front door for an able-bodied male to come past, and ask him if he would come into her house to pick her husband up. As soon as I left school and earned money I paid for a phone to be connected.”

We lived in Edmonton, North London, about 400 yards from the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, just on the edge of the area that was torched by riots last summer; and I dread to think what the result of inviting a stranger into the family home under those circumstances might be today. But of course it wouldn’t be necessary, as a family like our swould have “emergency button” access to care services and would be able toafford a telephone.

However, not everybody was sympathetic or supportive of the many thousands of people who were very visibly disabled by Polio at the time. You can read the first chapter of “Live Eels andGrand Pianos” here to see when and how I first became aware of this at the age of ten.

Two further extracts from the book give an idea of social attitudes to disability in the 1950s:

“In 1950 the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship published a fund raising brochure, and our family featured on page three. The national press picked upon this story, and ‘The People’ newspaper printed an article about us in November. I would not see this article for sixty years, as nobody kept a copy of it. This publicity had some unwelcome and unexpected consequences. The old man who sold the Evening News at the bottom of our street read it, and not only verbally abused Charlie for bringing up a child that would grow up crippled, but also spat at him.”

This second extract describes the experiences of Fred and Joyce Prudence, friends of my parents:

“Fred was married to Joyce, who also had Polio, and they had adopted a girl of about ten; a relative of Joyce’s. Fred worked for himself, as a watch repairer, from home. In 1959 Fred and Joyce decided to buy a house in Palmers Green. They needed a mortgage, which was granted. While their house purchase was going through, some neighbours got up a petition to the building society.They didn’t want cripples living in their street.  The building society sent the protesters away.Fred and Joyce bought their house.”

So, negative attitudes have always existed, and in the time that I wrote about they took different forms, such as low-level bullying, as well as organised campaigns to deprive people with disabilities of their civil rights. But they existed alongside positive attitudes,in particular the positive attitudes of local authority social services departments, politicians and the popular press. I left home at the age of twenty-one in 1969, and the following year saw the enactment of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, the first such act in the world to recognise and give rights to people with disabilities.

The Act gave people with disabilities the right to equal access to recreational and educational facilities. It obliged local authorities to provide telephones to people who were isolated as a result of disabilities, and in the first decade Post Office Engineering Union members installed 70,000 telephone lines in their spare time for a nominal charge of 2p per fitting which was then donated to disability charities.

The press was overwhelmingly positive. My family was written about by the National Press several times,because we were so unusual, but they wrote positive things about us. Contrast that with the disgusting,abusive and inaccurate coverage given to the subject by the Murdoch press today.

Three things are fundamentally different today to the times that I wrote about in “Live Eels” Firstly we havea government that is trying to renege on forty years of enlightened legislation,and is prepared to blame these changes on “scroungers”; secondly we have a rabid right-wing national press that seeks to whip up hatred about anybody (refugees, people with disabilities, to name but a few) who looks different and blame them for the economic recession.Thirdly we have a breakdown in large aspects of civil society that has led to riots in our cities, as well as examples of prolonged harassment and cruelty to those who the perpetrators think cannot fight back.

Please let me have your views. Feel  free to comment.

This is the "People" article from 1950 that cased Charlie to be verbally abused:


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