Mark Drinkwater attends a conference run by service users that offers hope in the bleak battle against disabililty hate crime
Such vile offences as those that led Fiona Pilkington to take her own life and that of her disabled daughter can lead to despair over how we get through to the perpetrators.
Recently, though, I felt heartened by an inspiring conference on tackling disability hate crimes. Notably, it was organised by a service user, along with their supported housing provider In Touch, which supports people with learning disabilities.
When I started working with people with learning disabilities in the early nineties, it was at the tail-end of a programme of closing long-stay hospitals in Wales. The closure of these anachronistic institutions was well ahead of other parts of the UK, spurred on by a number of scandals in the 1960s, such as that at Ely hospital in Cardiff, where service users were found to have been abused.
Unfortunately, while the move to community care was to be applauded, one of the unintended consequences was that individuals were often relocated to unwelcoming neighbourhoods.
Reporting hate crimes
Hostile neighbours were one of the issues that motivated this conference organiser to put together an event to support people with learning disabilities. His aim was to enable them to feel more confident about reporting hate crimes and to find the right support. Most importantly, it was about how to prevent it happening.
Seminars and workshops at the event featured the usual contributors you might expect, with presentations from the local council’s safeguarding adults co-ordinator, the police force’s safer neighbourhoods officers and local charities. But what made this conference day different was the involvement of service users. Not only was it organised by a service user, but there was a powerful drama by a local People First user group. Individual users also recounted moving stories about their experiences of hate crime and how they dealt with it.
Conferences can often feel a bit stuffy, or detached from the real world of work. They tend to be populated by service providers who are there for the chance to get out of the office for the day to unwind. Not that there’s anything wrong with unwinding, it’s just that these events can feel like they are some parallel universe, where service users’ perspectives can easily get overlooked.
Service user interaction
In contrast, this conference was engaging, with plenty of interaction with service users. It was perhaps one of the most invigorating of training days I’ve attended. With users determining the agenda, presenting some of the material and being part of the audience, this conference felt grounded in the real world.
People with learning disabilities are vulnerable as they have been historically perceived by some as a soft target. They are seen as less able to defend themselves and less likely to inform the police. Therefore, the challenge for providers and users is to help protect vulnerable people in a way that is empowering, rather than paternalistic.
This conference, having been organised by a service user, emphasised that users need to be more than mere passive participants of care. It also demonstrated the feeling of collective strength gained from service users and providers deciding to tackle a problem together.
Mark Drinkwater is a community worker based in Southwark