Do we have 'institutional ableism' in this country?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Reading an article recently, I came across a statistic about the deaths of disabled people due to police violence, which led me to a report about how the press deal with this. The first article quoted that half of deaths by law enforcement involved a disabled person.

The article and report are American, but bear in mind what happened in the UK as a result of the death of George Floyd in America.

I wanted to check out what was being quoted, which referred to one third to a half of the number of deaths over three years - the numbers rising to half in the third year. In that year, 17 people who had Down's syndrome or other learning disabilities suffered some violence from law enforcement officers.

The largest number of deaths were those with varying mental illnesses (the preferred term in the US being psychiatric disability).

Here is a quote from the introductory comments of the report: "Disability is the missing word in media coverage of police violence. Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. Disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention."

It continues, "This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated. The media is ignoring the disability component of these stories, or, worse, is telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism."

I've seen the same thing in the UK when we have been told a violent crime was done by someone who was mentally ill, inferring that it is a common thing for 'the mentally ill' to do. The same thing often happens to autistic people.

Only in the last few days, a reporter on a well-known news channel reported that the Queen's body could not return to England on the train because a mentally ill person might 'do something' so flying was safer.

All of this has made me ponder things in many different directions:

With those statistics of law enforcement violence against disabled people, why has there been no long-lasting outcry on this? It hasn't even turned a hair in the UK!

Why does the press either ignore the disability component or report it in a negatively biased way?

Also, where do we have issues in the UK?

In the absence of reliable statistics on police bias or violence towards disabled people in the UK, I have to look at some other issues I do know about.

I do know of disabled women reporting sexual assault when 'wheeling' home from work, and just being told to "go home a different way tomorrow" by the officer on duty.

I know lots of cases of carer abuse where the abuser was believed because 'they're a hero looking after the poor disabled person' and 'how ungrateful of the disabled person for complaining'!

Violence isn't always physical. It can also be in the action of not being believed. Disabled women are twice as likely to suffer domestic abuse - and are the least likely to be believed when they report it.

When hate crime against disabled people rose exponentially over recent years, the numbers of those who were charged or convicted dropped. In the 2019/20 figures, only 1.6% of cases resulted in the perpetrators being charged, according to health and welfare charity Leonard Cheshire.

As I'm constantly saying, the history of disabled people is ugly, and behind closed doors, that ugly history is repeating itself.

That history is why certain disability words shouldn't be used either to describe disabled people or as an insult to someone who isn't disabled.

Let me open that up more. If someone wanted to make a complaint against me for using the wrong words about a couple of the other diversities out there, I could have a visit from the police telling me about the complaint. But a politician wasn't even challenged for calling a colleague an 'imbecile' last week.

I don't want a witch hunt over language as is happening in those other diversities, but the words that create those scenarios are on a par with the disability words used to insult people every day - and no one thinks it's at least in bad taste or even unacceptable.

There is a disparity and not just with the police. Do we have 'institutional ableism' in this country? It's not terminology I like, but it's worth asking.

Kay Morgan-Gurr is Co-Founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, part of the Evangelical Alliance Council. She is a visually impaired wheelchair user and blogs at Follow her on Twitter @kaymorgan_gurr