This morning my 7 year old son does not want to go to school. He used to love it. He is one of those children who adores learning, but there are occurrences happening in the playground that break his heart. Yesterday at school a child told him that I was a “slut” and in a wheelchair because I’m “too lazy to walk”. This boy is 10 years old. This is not the first time this has occurred. On other occasions the same group of children have laughed at my sons and said “Haha, your mum’s in a wheelchair”. Other titbits include “Well at least my mum’s not a cripple”, and “your mum is a lazy bitch and you’re a Jew who should be burned”. Unfortunately, the school do not seem to believe this is an issue they need to address. My children have been told simply to accept their apologies and move on.
When I was at school and had a seriously ill family member I experienced similar bullying. Children used to follow me around singing the Addam’s Family theme tune and clicking their fingers. To them, serious illness was not something to illicit sympathy, but instead was something to be laughed at like the “sideshow freak” of years gone by.
I had to leave school at the age of 14 because that was the age when I first had to use a wheelchair. People would come and knock on my front door to gawk, and my wheelchair was stolen twice from outside my front door. I was told of times when they would laugh about me having to be in a wheelchair and mocking me for being ill.
Ableism is everywhere. A friend who I’ve known since the age of 4 once sat there and joked about Jeremy Beadle’s “gimpy Nemo fin”, knowing full well that I had an aunt, who was like a second mother, who had had polio in her infancy and who had been left with, amongst many other difficulties, a paralysed arm. It was not that she intentionally set out to hurt me, she was an adult by this time, but ableism is so entrenched in our society that it did not occur to her that her words might be incredibly offensive.
My parents taught me as a young child that you do not laugh at another person’s suffering. I was taught that you sympathise, but never pity, offer help when you can, and put down anyone who would treat others any other way. Maybe this is because my dad grew up with a twin sister with a serious disability, and a mother who had also been left as a wheelchair user following a motorbike crash in her youth. Yet, I had always just assumed that it was just the way it was and that all of society followed those rules.
Things were bad when I was a teenager but they are much worse now. Since Labour introduced ATOS and anti-disability propaganda into British society, and the Conservatives extended it beyond their wildest dreams, disability has become a dirty word and a synonym for “scrounger”. On many occasions I’ve had to point out that there are many, many people with disabilities who succeed in employment. A part of me feels like it’s a backlash against what should have been a good thing. When I was younger you almost had to paralysed to be recognised as having a disability. The umbrella of conditions acknowledged as being a disability grew. In 2010 a person with a disability was officially classed under The Equality Act (EA) as “someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. Yet, almost in correlation, public sympathy shrank.
It has been revealed that in Medway at least a third of people with learning disabilities, under which they seem to be including things like autism, are experiencing hate crimes. They say that these people have been “bullied, verbally abused and physically assaulted”. Other sources suggest that up to 90% of people with learning disabilities have experienced harassment and that 47% live in fear. People with disabilities are 4 times more likely to be violently attacked than non-disabled people.
Perhaps our children are perpetuating disability hate speech because their parents are. I wonder how many of these children have sat with their parents whilst they watch programmes such as “Saints and Scroungers” or “Benefits Street”. Or how many children have heard their parents complaining about the man down the road who “only has a blue badge because he’s fat” or the friend who “doesn’t look ill”. Our programme makers and newspaper journalists have many sins upon their heads. The correlation between state sponsored ableism and that of the media shows them to be working closely together.
As for our own situation, I’m going to ask that they let me be in a meeting with this boy. I want to explain to him that I was a year older than him when I first became ill and that despite that there are many things in my life that I am proud of. I want him to see the things I have achieved in my life in spite of my illnesses. I want his parents to think about what they are teaching their son, and the impact of these actions upon others. But more than anything else, I want my son to see him squirm. It’s amazing how cowardly bullies become when placed in a position of relative powerlessness. A position many of us with disabilities find ourselves in on a regular basis, except we get to hold our heads up high at the end of the day.