Over the past decade there have been a number of studies highlighting the extent to which disabled people experience prejudice in their everyday lives. Time and again these studies demonstrate how negative attitudes towards disability remain stubbornly resistant to change. Worse still – as the murders of Brent Martin and the ‘vulnerable’ pensioner Peter Lewis horrifically demonstrated – such attitudes all too often act as a precursor to discrimination, harassment, hostility and, on occasion, murder.
Whilst cases such as Brent Martin and Peter Lewis are thankfully rare, it remains that verbal, physical and emotional abuse are depressingly common within disabled communities.
Of all the so-called ‘hate crimes’, acts perpetrated against those with disabilities are perhaps the most difficult to comprehend. Conceivably this is representative of a somewhat paternalistic attitude towards disability. As Mike Davis points out in the recent ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ report, ‘‘we are supposed to feel sorry for these people, so why would anyone be deliberately horrible to them?’ Maybe it just makes us too uncomfortable, thinking that might be the society in which we live’.
As depressing as this picture may be, it is worth considering that societal attitudes towards previously stigmatised ‘groups’ can and do change. Naturally, such changes do not happen overnight and evidently necessitate a review of existing policies, positive media representation(s), increased visibility and not inconsiderable effort from lobbyists and activists (amongst other things).
Take, for example, attitudes towards homosexuality in the UK. As recently as 1983, 62 per cent of adults felt that homosexual acts were ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong. By last year, this figure had come down to 36 per cent. Of course, this is not to say that a gay man living in the UK in 2012 is immune to prejudice and hostility (far from it), but everyday hate and prejudice is more likely to flourish in circumstances where anti-gay sentiments are the ‘norm’. No doubt life becomes that little bit more tolerable knowing that the majority of society has no problems with who you choose to love.
In considering examples of large-scale changes in social attitudes, the London Paralympics presented a number of potential opportunities for changing how wider society perceived disability. Of course, it would be naïve to think that a two week sporting event would – on its own – facilitate a wholesale shift in attitudes towards disability. Moreover, the reasons that led those to so brutally attack Brent Martin in August 2007 are complex and arguably represent a wider social malaise. This requires a different and multi-faceted solution.
But this should not detract from the opportunity for the Paralympics to be a real force for change. Prejudice thrives on ignorance, misconception and a fear of the ‘other’; for children to have been able to see that for every Usain Bolt there was also an Oscar Pistorius waiting in the wings, may end up resulting in the usual distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ becoming more blurred.
Longer-term it may also have encouraged more people with disabilities to become involved in sport, which can only be a good thing. As Alice Maynard from the charity Scope points out, at a time when attitudes towards disabled people appear to be getting worse, the Paralympics can play a positive role in raising the profile of disabled people through increasing visibility and familiarity in everyday life.
In fact, the planned disability legacy for the London 2012 Paralympic Games includes a commitment to improve public perceptions of disabled people.
Whether this is wishful thinking remains to be seen, but it is worth pointing out that the Beijing Paralympics appears to have brought about a more progressive attitude towards disability in China.
More research is required to capture any long-term change post-London 2012 and the role of schools, policymakers and the ‘media’ is clearly important in maintaining momentum. Whilst the 2012 Paralympics are unlikely to have any discernible impact on the more extreme forms of disability hate crimes, it is not inconceivable that, through increased exposure to disability, the Paralympics will have helped to (re)shape everyday perceptions.
This may in turn lead to reductions in the constant low-level abuse and social exclusion that blights the quality of life for so many disabled people.
School of Social Sciences