Turning a blind eye perpetuates abuse, writes Jan Savage
Our members tell us consistently that offensive, abusive language is still being targeted at them. And it hurts.
We know that nine out of 10 people who have learning disabilities have been bullied. And we want it to stop.
During Anti-Bullying Week (17-21 November), Enable Scotland has been unveiling a forceful and bold campaign to confront head-on the use of aggressive, spiteful language directed at people who have learning disabilities.
We make no apologies for glaringly highlighting across the country the spiky, hateful words that are hurled daily at people who have learning disabilities.
Under the hashtag banner #bethechange, this is one of the most controversial and culture-challenging campaigns that Scotland has seen in recent years.
Members of Enable, who were highly influential in shaping the campaign over the past two years, insist that the use of abusive language frequently thrust at them must be stopped once and for all.
During consultation, our members documented instances of bullying in and around the home, in the community, on public transport and online.
And this, in spite of research showing that people who have learning disabilities do not always realise that they are being bullied.
The hard-hitting #bethechange graffiti artwork posters that now appear on buses and trains are splattered with the offensive words members have told us they want to halt.
The Scottish Government-supported #bethechange campaign aims to confront those who think that it’s funny to direct a diatribe of hurtful words towards people just because they have a learning disability.
The campaign urges everyone to take action, by reflecting on their own use of language and what also on what they might laugh at or overhear.
Yes, these words are difficult to look at and read. But if the general public is upset or offended by these words, they should reflect on how they impact on our members who are frequently on the receiving end of this abusive language.
We need to challenge people to think again about how acceptable they find these words by placing this offensive language in front of them, confronting them with it, and asking them to #bethechange.
Our aim is to provoke an emotional reaction and shock people into altering their attitudes. In preparation for the launch, a group of our members and supporters painted over a wall, scarred with the offensive words they have endured throughout childhood and adult years.
In standing up against the vile outpourings frequently aimed at people who have learning disabilities, members made #bethechange’s first hard-hitting statement at railway arches at a public transport thoroughfare in Glasgow – because, they say, trains and buses are bullying hotspots, and places where bystanders turn a blind eye.
They blotted out the ugly word “retard”, covering it with a “#bethechange” mural. Network Rail has agreed to allow the logo to remain. Recent Crown Office statistics show that reported incidents of disability hate crime in Scotland are on the increase. Disability prejudice accounted for 154 charges in 2013/14.
It is, however, widely accepted that disability-related hate crime is significantly under-reported, and the actual figures are much higher. Behind every statistic lies an individual’s experience, and we hear too many such stories.
Member Peter McMahon has produced a series of films about his encounters with prejudice.
In the introduction to the first of his three emotive films, he describes having bottles of water thrown at him, being pushed up against a bus window, and hateful words like “loonie”, “mongo”, “spastic” and “alien” being spewed at him. The bus was full, yet no-one intervened.
Another member recalls how a group of boys humiliated him in a shop by pulling down his trousers – just because he has a learning disability.
#bethechange insists it is time for shocking instances like these to stop. It will target the bullies who perpetrate disability hate crime and the bystanders who witness abuse, but do nothing.
It is never too early to educate children about the risks of committing a hate crime when they get older.
We have been working with Strathclyde University to compile lesson plans for schoolchildren. Supporters of the campaign are urged to sign an online declaration wall confirming they are no longer prepared to tolerate this language.
We are appealing to them to write to MSPs asking for their support for #bethechange lesson plans to be delivered in schools.
Our campaign will also engage schoolchildren, teachers and parents. And it will make its voice heard among local authorities and politicians by encouraging them to #bethechange.
• Jan Savage is assistant director, campaigns and membership, with Enable Scotland