The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime – Adam Pearson
Adam Pearson is a young man with a dreadful facial disfigurement. He has a condition called Neurofibromatosis type 1 which, for him, means noncancerous tumours grow on nerve endings on his face. He is an ardent campaigner against disability hate crime, having been on the receiving end of it for much of his life.
He has made a documentary with the BBC to help raise awareness of disability prejudice and hopes to discover why people are so uneasy around disabled, particularly disfigured people.
The documentary entitled “The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime” is perhaps self-deprecating or perhaps intended to shock in order to raise the profile of this form of prejudice.
Adam Pearson was first diagnosed with neurofibromatosis when he was five years old. His mother recalls “We just thought he had a bump on his head, and then, when the bump kept getting bigger, they diagnosed NF.”
Adam has an identical twin: Neil who shares the NF condition but his tumours do not grow on his face.
At this stage Adam and his mother went to see a plastic surgeon and were told “He will grow, the lumps won’t, and when he’s 17 he’ll look like everybody else.” Adam’s mother is angry because the plastic surgeon was, in her opinion, patronizing, and so obviously wrong!
Adam Pearson “I understand that people will have natural curiosity, but it isn’t always easy to live with people’s stares. And, watch what happens when I sit on a busy bus. Notice how nobody sits anywhere near me. Not even on the seats behind.”
It is not just the stares; it is often verbal abuse. Adam Pearson “A lot of disabled people learn from a young age to use humour as a defence mechanism. I know I did. But some things just aren’t funny. Hate crimes and hate incidents I’ve experienced. Classics are ‘spastic’, ‘elephant man’, ‘Aw, look at his face’, ‘does he know it isn’t Halloween?’, ‘what time’s the freak show?’.”
Lucas – frontonasal craniofacial dysplasia
Adam compares notes with his friend Lucas who has frontonasal craniofacial dysplasia and has been the victim of childhood abuse just as Adam has been. Adam “What’s your first memory of someone saying something to you about how you look?” Lucas “My very first memory was my first day at primary school. This girl came up to me and asked me, she went, ‘What’s wrong with your face?’ And I didn’t have an answer for that.” Adam “Were the teachers in any way helpful? I know, for me, they weren’t. I remember one time they put on the Hunchback of Notre Dame in one of my lessons and one of the kids said very loudly, ‘Oh we’re watching Adam’ and the teacher clearly heard it because he reacted to it, but didn’t do anything. Were your teachers anymore sympathetic towards your cause?” Lucas “The teachers didn’t follow up on any negative behaviour that was occurring, so it got a lot worse. It became that bad that my parents decided they were going to take me out of primary school and home-school me.” Adam “I’m assuming you weren’t bullied at home-school? Is this where the negative attitudes towards disfigurement started?” Lucas “I believe that the negative attitudes are passed on through the generations. I know that often the attitudes parents directly affect the attitudes of the children because I’ve had lots of instances where I’ve been called names and things have been said to me that children wouldn’t come up with on their own. For instance I’ve been called “Elephant Man” and things like that and I know six-year old children don’t know of that let alone four-year-olds and three-year-olds.”
Adam Pearson “Prejudice against disabled people is called “disablism”. Whilst everyone knows the words racism and homophobia, I’m beginning to wonder whether disablism is an issue people are even aware of. I grabbed some unsuspecting people on the streets of London to find out. 30 minutes in and not a single person has nailed it. Well the results of this survey are in and it’s not very good. Out of everyone we spoke to, only three people out of eighteen knew what disablism was. It’s clear that the concept of disablism isn’t in the public consciousness. It’s just not deemed as important as other forms of prejudice. It’s so under the radar that only a handful of disability hate crimes have hit the headlines in the past ten years.”
- Oldham woman jailed over ‘disfigure face’ attack
- Disabled man ‘attacked by gang’
- Jail term cut for ‘feral’ killers
Adam Pearson “These are horrifying hate crimes.and I wonder how many more have taken place that didn’t make the news?” Adam “Right in the middle of looking into all this, I turn on my computer to find out I’ve been the target of a disablist hate incident myself. I put an interview sbout a film I was in on my YouTube page.At the end of the film the female lead, the alien character, gets set on fire and burnt to death, and some one has posted this charming comment about me: ‘What happened to the alien at the end of the film should have happened to you at birth, lol.’ So he finds the idea of me being burnt to death at birth hysterical.”
Adam is infuriated as his complaint to Youtube receives almost no action. This despite it appearing to be in flagrant contravention of their terms and conditions.
Hayden – Crouzon Syndrome
Hayden, a friend of Adam, has twice been the victim of disability hate crime but these weren’t recorded as official statistics. Hayden has Crouzon Syndrome. Like Adam, he is blind in one eye, partially deaf and facially disfigured. He wears his hair over his eye to try and hide his disfigurement. In a club in Milton Keynes, one night, he was pushed over and slightly injured. He believes it was because he looks different. Hayden reported the incident to the police. Hayden didn’t know he could report this as a disability hate crime. The second time Hayden was assaulted was again in a nightclub where he was picked on for his hair. Again he was pushed over and didn’t think to report it.
Adam Pearson “I suspect many more people, like Hayden, are just absorbing this abusive behaviour as a fact of life, rather than taking action. Do you think it’s because of your condition and how you look that people tend to give you more aggravation?”
Hayden “Yes I think it is. That’s why I’ve had a lot of surgery in my life trying to make myself look less disabled.” Adam Pearson “Do you know much about the law surrounding hate crime?” Hayden “No, I’ve never been aware of the disability hate crimes situation. I’ve always been aware of hate crime. Racism and things like that but not about disabled people.” Adam Pearson “Disability hate crime and the laws around it are just not on people’s radar. Not even people who are disabled. And unbelievably, the law itself treats crime towards people who are disabled as less important than other forms of hate crime. Let me explain. If someone hits me because of my disability then they could get up to six months in prison. But if someone hits me because I’m a different race or religion, they can get a longer sentence of up to two years. This is because a disability hate crime is only considered a basic offence, whereas race or religious hate crimes are considered aggravated offences. I’m not the only one with a disability who’s not being listened to. There are some shocking incidents of disability hate crime that weren’t taken seriously.”
Take the tragic case of Fiona Pilkington, whose daughter Francesca Hardwick was disabled. Across ten years, she made 33 complaints to Leicestershire Police about hate crime incidents and no action was taken. Fiona ended up taking her own life along with Francesca’s. 23-year-old Brent Martin who had learning difficulties, died in hospital after three trained doctors attacked him over a £5 bet to see who could knock him out first. Brent’s murder wasn’t recognised in court as being aggravated by their hatred of his disability and alarmingly, all their sentences were reduced on appeal.
Dr. Mark Walters, Sussex University
Adam Pearson “I have to pick myself up and keep going. I can’t let ignorance win. I need to find out where I stand on the abusive comment I received, so I travel to Brighton to meet Dr. Mark Walters a specialist in hate crime laws from Sussex University.”
Dr. Mark Walters “That, to me, is clearly an example of hate speech. So, there are various different pieces of legislation that this could be pursued under, and I think that the police were incorrect to just say to you, ‘There’s nothing we can do about this.’. They should, at least, have investigated this properly. Because not only is this a case of stating that you should have been killed at birth, but it’s aggravated by the fact that they’re referring to your disability. I’m pretty alarmed by this. I’m assuming that you were probably quite distressed by it. It could be interpreted as being abusive. So, there are three pieces of legislation that are relevant to that message. And the police should have taken that seriously.”
Hate crime laws protect five different minority group on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender and disability. But, unfairly, there are different laws that cover these groups, and disability is excluded from certain hate crime laws.
Dr. Mark Walters “If you’re going to prescribe and legislate against hate crime, and you’ve identified five different groups that are deserving of protection, where there is clearly an issue of targeted violence, targeted abuse, you need to treat all of those equally in law because if you don’t, it sends out the unintended message that those groups are less worthy of protection than other groups.”
If disability hate crime is not treated equally in law, how can we expect the rest of society to take it seriously?
Michael Fuller, Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service
In 2013, Michael Fuller, Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service, published a report revealing that disability hate crime specifically was being overlooked in the way it was prosecuted.
Adam Pearson “Is it lack of awareness, or is it because the police, juries, et cetera don’t understand the issue?”
Michael Fuller “What the inspection found is the police officers, they often feel very awkward about asking people about their disability. So, they feel uncomfortable about that and, as a result, offences they may have come across or be called to aren’t always recorded in the way that they should be.”
So, issue number one – the police are too embarrassed to ask about disabilities, so aren’t recording incidents as disability hate crimes.
Adam Pearson “Why do you think, when it does make it to court, it seems to be taken less seriously than other forms of hate crime?”
Michael Fuller “There is quite a serious problem there, in that there’s a duty on the prosecutor to highlight to the court that a particular offence is a disability hate crime. And there is a legal provision that enables them to do that.”
Issue number two – prosecutors aren’t stating to the courts that these offences are disability hate crimes, so they’re not being convicted as such.
Michael Fuller “And what we’ve found is that legal provision, the sentence uplift, was not being used enough and, as a result the sentences weren’t reflecting the seriousness of the disability hate crimes.”
Issue number three – if they were highlighted as disability hate crimes, then judges would have to hand out longer sentences, though still not as long as for other hate crimes.
Adam Pearson “It’s no wonder that disablism and disability hate crime don’t register as an issue with ordinary people. If the police have been failing, and so have the courts, then the whole system has gone wrong from the top down. It’ll take a lot more than just me getting on my soapbox to change the justice system. My only hope is that since Michael’s report, the Crown Prosecution Service have drawn up an action plan. And I’m told their response is improving, as is that of the police.”
Adam recognises that changes in the law and changes in public attitude could take years to come into effect.
Professor Miles Hewstone, Oxford University
Adam Pearson “I want to understand more about what leads people to carry out disability hate crimes. What causes this prejudice? Take the movies – baddies always seem to have… scars, burns hooks or even sometimes even just a big nose. The ugly, disfigured baddie is always portrayed as the evil villain. But is it just negative stereotypes that cause prejudice against disabled people or does it run deeper than that? Why do people hate me when they don’t even know me? What is it that’s going on in their heads? I’m hoping Professor Miles Hewstone, who specialises in prejudice work at Oxford University’s psychology department can help me with this.”
Adam “So, why do you think people are prejudiced to particularly people with disabilities and disfigurement?”
Miles Hewstone “I think in the case of a group such as people with facial disfigurements, we’d be looking much more at the kind of emotions that people were feeling. The pronounced feeling people will have is one of anxiety and I think a great deal of this is that they have never met someone like you before. The kind of people who are engaged in hate crime are people feeling those very strong emotions like disgust or contempt, which I think is due to their inability to deal with their own feelings and then it make them behave in extreme ways. They, if you like, are the problem, not you.”
Adam Pearson “Do you think prejudice is in-built or hard-wired into people?”
Miles Hewstone “I don’t believe that it comes hard-wired. The most important thing is it doesn’t come in some kind of form that is not changeable. We have plenty of evidence that it can be changed.”
Adam hopes that Miles is right, that people’s prejudice can be changed, and he’s agreed to help him test this.
Adam Pearson “If I spend some time with people who feel prejudiced towards facial disfigurement, will meeting me in person have any effect on their prejudice levels?”
A group of ten randomly selected people agreed to take part in this experiment, most of whom have never spent time with a disfigured person.
The volunteers begin by taking a test designed to assess their prejudice levels. To do this we use an established test which works out their subconscious bias against disfigured faces. The test measures people’s automatic, uncontrollable responses to images of disfigured and non-disfigured faces so they are unable to give answers they may consciously want to give.
Miles Hewstone “These are tests that you can’t control, and that we are, in a sense, all victims of our experiences.”
The initial score showed high levels of innate bias.
This second part of the experiment has never been tested before. If this group spend time getting to know me, will their prejudice levels reduce? Miles has told them to ask me questions, to help them start to develop a relationship with me. Then they’ll be tested again.
The group spent an hour with Adam although the anxiety was apparent as they all kept a reasonable physical distance from him.
Amazingly, all the people in the volunteer group produced scores showing much less prejudice in subsequent tests.
Miles Hewstone “Getting this group of people together to meet someone like Adam has shown me the power of face-to-face interaction with somebody from a group that you have no contact with. Looking at the test, I’m even more positive about that, because in nine out of ten people – so, overall, a clear tendency for prejudicial reactions to be reduced as a result of meeting Adam.”
Adam Pearson “I was ridiculously encouraged to find out what happened after the group had met me. I expected a few people’s results to be better the second time round but, nine out of ten is an astonishingly good number. This is a massive breakthrough. I’ve discovered that I can effect a change in people’s prejudice towards disfigurement just by spending time with them. If people getting to know me can lower their prejudice and fear, then maybe reaching people on a larger scale can help reduce hate crime.”