Disabilism – The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime (BBC)

under the skin adam pearson scarlett JohanssonYes, that’s Scarlett Johansson. Adam Pearson in film Under the Skin (2013)

Before watching the BBC’s documentary The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime I had never heard of the term ‘disabilism’. Of course, I was well aware of despicable disability hate crimes reported in the news, but I’d never seen a prejudicial -ism mentioned in connection with them.

Many stories have hit the headlines in recent years about those with learning difficulties who are tortured to death for laughs, frail pensioners with walking sticks beaten on their own doorsteps and the facially disfigured harassed with threatening hate speech. That last describes the documentary’s presenter, journalist and actor Adam Pearson’s everyday problem. You see, he suffers from type 1 neurofibromatosis which causes benign tumours to grow on his face, distorting his features. It’s swollen to such a degree that it appears Adam’s wearing a mask. As a defence mechanism he deflects the insults with humour. It’s laugh or cry.

Adam examines one of these incidents in detail. A comment posted on Adam’s YouTube page said he should’ve been killed at birth. Despite being reported, YouTube did nothing about it. Neither did the police. Until Adam spoke to a friend who works for Google, YouTube’s parent company, and the comment miraculously disappeared without explanation.

Through a series of examples and statistics it’s shown that race or religious motivated violence is treated more seriously, the penalties for which are far greater than for the under reported and under prosecuted violent disabilism, despite criminal cases rising by 213% in seven years.

Watching this programme was an eye-opener. Footage of Adam on a bus showed how everyone avoided sitting near him, as if he was infected with a deadly contagious disease. A fantastic experiment proved that interacting with Adam by allowing participants to ask the sorts of questions we all think but never ask actually drastically reduces disabilist prejudice. Familiarity vanquished all fears as the participants stopped looking at Adam like he was a monster about to prey on them to look past his disfigurement to see the funny, self-deprecating man underneath.

And that’s another thing. Film makers regularly use, as Adam says, ‘disfigurement as a shorthand for evil’ [36:14]. Eye patches, scars, burns or just something like a big nose mark characters as villains. If the underrepresented disabled are cast as the stereotypical bad guys, no wonder society views them in a similarly negative fashion.

You don’t see your average disabled person much in the media, so unless you know any you won’t have much knowledge of what it’s like to be them. I personally haven’t come across many books with disabled main characters and The Theory of Everything and A Beautiful Mind are the only films to come to mind.

I highly recommend watching the full documentary (below).

Further Reading

To combat disability hate crime, we must understand why people commit it (Guardian)

‘Failure’ on disability hate crime changes (BBC)

Victims of disability hate crime are still being let down, report claims (Guardian)

Disability Hate Crime Network

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