Me, right, and sisters Maureen, left, and Laura, who has Down Syndrome, on my lapThe Guardian asks today whether the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca might be a "Stephen Lawrence" moment in the treatment of crimes against disabled people. The police and local authority were blamed for their failure to deal with the harassment of Ms Pilkington and her disabled daughter, which only ended when the mother took both their lives by setting their car alight. It's a subject that I feel personally close to as I have a sister with Down Syndrome. Our family is very protective of her, and given the level of hate crime against learning disabled people is it any wonder?
Let's be clear here. These are not crimes against ALL disabled people. Even the bampots in the Pilkington case would surely think twice before kicking a blind person's stick away or toppling over wheelchairs. These are attacks on people who have what used to be called a "mental handicap". They are not viewed with sympathy by the young people who attack and bully them. They invoke fear and contempt yet receive very little protection.
For the last 20 years or so, the whole focus of work with this group has been to get them "into the community". There is a big push for integrated education in mainstream schools, allocating individual tenancies and encouraging independent travel and work. Even well run "day opportunities centres" which offer activities to stimulate and occupy adults, and ease the pressure on their carers, are falling out of fashion. This is already the case with "sheltered villages" in rural areas. Those that survive, such the Camphill community, are wonderful organisations. But there are very few places and long waiting lists.
This trend towards independent living is well intentioned. But sometimes it seems political correctnesss has taken the place of protection. It is generally considered more important for learning disabled people to be treated "just like you" than it is to keep them safe from the feral and cruel characters we know exist out there. So why, after decades of "community integration", are they more marginalised than ever, and falling victim to the most horrible crimes? The fact is "care in the community" works best in communities which are genuinely caring. Our newspaper recently interviewed the former government minister, Brian Wilson, who has a disabled son.The family moved to the Outer Hebrides, Brian's wife's home, for the sake of their teenage boy. He will be able to lead a fulfilling life in a very close community where the neighbours will look out for him. I just wish the places where most learning disabled people end up in urban Britain were as gentle and caring as The Western Isles. But the tenancies they are given in cities are often in troubled council schemes, because that is cost efficient. If they are still with their families, the chances are that raising their child has restricted parental employment opportunities, so they will not be staying in the most salubrious areas. In our polarised society, they will have to share space with criminal and anti-social elements.
Having said that, prejudice isn't confined to council estates, it's endemic My young daughter tells me she has friends who regularly use words like "spaz" as a form of insult. These are nice kids from nice families who would never use racist language. Does anyone ever correct them? How many positive portrayals do they see of learning disabled adults? There is lots of coverage of children with such difficulties in the media. We all nod and sympathise and agree that they deserve equal treatment. But when the child grows into adulthood, the cuteness factor is lost and nobody cares. Perhaps, instead of repeating the mantra that they are "just like us" we should educate society about their special needs, their extreme vulnerability, and the duty of care we all have towards of them.