How can we explain violence against disabled people?

Dan Goodley, Professor of Psychology and Disability Studies, University of Sheffield, School of Education,

It is perhaps not surprising to disability scholars though still sobering to learn, in the current climate of austerity and economic downturn, that disabled people are more likely to experience hate crime. A recent roundtable chaired by Tom Shakespeare of the World Health Organisation at the 2012 Disability Studies conference in Lancaster drew necessary attention to hate crimes in nations from Zimbabwe to England. One got a sense of a global epidemic of disablist hatred as contributors provided depressing and harrowing data on physical and psychological crimes. Conference delegates heard statistics on mental and sexual abuse, battery, vandalism of home and grievous bodily harm. These testimonies from colleagues such as Tsitsi Chataika and Alan Roulstone in the aforementioned nations importantly capture what is happening on the ground. Today. 2012. Actual acts of seemingly mindless violence. But how can we explain and understand this violence? What counts as violence against disabled people? And when we think of violence what do we have in mind? Whilst it is morally and politically necessary to recognise and challenge physical acts of violence – epitomised by hate crime – do other more subtle forms of violence exist that are as equally damaging to disabled people? Such questions might seem banal, trivial and typically academic. These questions appear to move away from the realities of hate-fuelled acts to the naval gazing realm of frothy theory often typified by those of a postmodern persuasion. Yet, on closer examination, one could conclude that these questions broaden the concept of violence and demand a more considered response.

In a recent paper that I have written with my colleague Katherine Runswick Cole[i] we posed and then tried to address these questions. We approached the task because of the stories shared with us by disabled children and their families in England. We too were told about physical acts of violence: those one might normally associated with hate crime. A girl having tampons forced in her mouth by her non-disabled peers on the school bus. A young man being attacked by a playground supervisor in his school. A teenage girl being forced to lick a toilet seat by a group of girls who were filming this ‘jape’ to upload on to You Tube later that day. Equally, sadly and unfortunately, we also heard accounts of violence that hinted at some of the wider endemic social and cultural factors that might be understood as lying behind the often more publicised accounts of what is being increasingly termed hate crime.

The cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, in his 2008 book Violence[ii], suggests that while it is important to document and address all forms of violence we should also be prepared to move back from the obvious signals of violence to ‘perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts’. Žižek urges us to consider the ways in which the whole panoply of violent acts against (disabled) people can only be understood by reflecting on the wider circulating practices of dominant (disablist) culture.

His work encourages us to consider the normal, everyday, mundane, accepted workings of societal institutions and community practices as being inherently violent against those that, in some way or another, threaten their everyday workings and practices. Other forms of violence emerge. One of these is what is Žižek terms systemic violence; which he understands as the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems. ‘We’re talking here’ he says, ‘of the violence inherent in a system: not only of direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination: including the threat of violence’ (Žižek, 2008: 1-8). This kind of violence was apparent in the lives of the disabled children and families that we spoke to who told us of disabled children being manhandled in Christmas performances by staff in order to behave and not disrupt the show. This violence is to be found when a child’s hand are pulled away from a canvas because their messy painting methods were at odds with the classroom task that had been set in tune with the requirements of a lesson in-keeping with the National Curriculum.  Similarly, we find the pressures of the system in the numerous parental stories of stress, tears and near breakdown explained by the endless need to fight the school system to recognize and include their children. These narratives of systemic violence might not be as hard hitting as the earlier accounts of physical and mental acts of abuse. They are often not as newsworthy. They are, however, as brutal and potentially damaging as any form of disablist violence because they say something profound about the wider disablist culture in which we live.

This is a culture that appears to give permission to a whole host of abusive acts against those individuals who threaten the safe running of normative, disabling, everyday ways of life. To tackle violence against disabled people we must stop all hate crimes, physical and mental acts against disabled people. Additionally, we must also keep deconstructing and reforming the very cultural norms that legitimize violence against disabled people in the first place. Theorising violence is not a project for apolitical social theorists: it is a project that seeks an adequate response to the endemic nature of violence against disabled people found mascarading in the belief that the status quo is working well and should remain intact. This is the social fact of violence that we must always keep in mind.

  1. Goodley, D. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2011). The violence of disablism, Sociology of Health and Illness, 33 (4), 602–617

ii.               Žižek, S. (2008). Violence. London: Profile books.

One comment

  1. The reason abuse of disabled people continues is because there has been a colossal failure of our justice system to severely punish this type of abuse. The more the abuse is exposed, the more people will know what can happen and be more alerted and ready to spot potential abusers.

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