Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

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Book Review: Scapegoat – Why we are failing disabled people by Katharine Quarmby

(Trigger warning: disability hate crime)

Whilst not explicitly about gender, I consider reviewing this book (and others that deal with issues of discrimination of various types) important due to the importance of intersectionality. How could I, as a writer who engages with a broad cross section of material claim (implicitly, by writing) to be in any way enlightened about, for instance, the experiences of a disabled queer person? Gendered analysis cannot exist in a vaccum, otherwise it rapidly and depressingly can lose its relevance for a great deal of people, and potentially erase their experiences in the process. I consider books addressing disability, class, race, and culture to be important parts of the educational diet of those developing their understanding of gender.

I was excited to read this book, and purchased it based simply on its importance highlighted by the title. It’s undeniable that ableism (discrimination and prejudice against disabled people) is rife, as highlighted by some of the facts on the back cover of the book. Only two out of ten disabled people have non-disabled friends, and nearly 50% of disabled people have recently experienced or witnessed physical abuse? Seems like something the privileged, able bodied population should be asking themselves ‘why?’ about, and also offers some juicy insights into how prejudice can infiltrate society.

Overall, my feelings on this book were mixed. It is clear from the narrative that the author, Katharine Quarmby, has invested a great deal of time and effort in researching the topic of the book. Some very important and disturbing examples of disability hate crime are recounted in great detail, and used to illustrate problems with housing policy, police responses, and considerations (or lack thereof) of disability in court cases. The structure was clear, and points poignant. I felt however that each time a particularly heinous crime was described to prepare for these salient and enlightening points, it was done so in a frustrating way. Often the environment was painted like poor dramatic fiction – ideas like ‘you’d never have thought such a terrible thing could happen in such a peaceful neighbourhood’. It made me imagine a spun-out Daily Mail article, but without the offensive bits. Irrelevant details about the origins of a town where a particular hate crime happened didn’t serve to enrich; only to make me ask ‘is this filler’? I was also left with my eyebrows raised that the author included very questionable paragraphs concerning the murder of one man, Brent Martin:

Brenda knew that something was wrong. ‘When they came for me, at half past three in the morning, with me daughter Tracey7, I’d had me coat on, I was out of me mind.’ She had had two premonitions, she said, that something was going to happen to Brent. In bed, a few days earlier, her body had been twisted and pulled by invisible forces. […] Brenda feels Brent’s presence still, as well of that of her dead husband Alec. She talks to them downstairs, she told me, and tells them: ‘I know you’re waiting up for me, but it’ll be a few years yet!’

This bizarre nod of legitimization toward’s this poor woman’s supernatural beliefs only served to undermine the legitimacy of the useful discussion in the book. I believe the quality of the writing would have been vastly improved had the author distanced herself from the tabloid-esque style which I suspect she may employ quite successfully in her work, even as a Sunday Times, Telegraph, and Guardian writer. I also felt that elements of the book were under-referenced, with sentences such as:

Research shows that children and young people are overwhelmingly involved in antisocial behaviour around disabled peoples’ homes, on the buses and on the streets.

…then with no reference whatsoever. A very large number of the book’s references are URLs to BBC news stories. I have some sympathy regarding the fact that this author may be regarded as a pioneer in disability hate crime research (as an activist rather than an academic, at least) but some discussion of these limitations would have been well warranted.

Despite these problems, I am still glad to have read this book. The few chapters that provide some basic history on the treatment of disabled people through witch hunts and freak shows offers some intriguing historical context, and the progression from asylums to ‘care in the community’ is definitely an interesting journey that is examined in a manner that remains entirely accessible.

Quarmby also recognises the importance of intersectionality in her writing, which is certainly not to be undervalued. As well as giving some helpful discourse on the early origins of ‘hate crime’ within UK legal systems and social consciousness, gender, race, and religious intolerance also all feature in her discussions. Here is a powerful example concerning gender, also highlighting potential system flaws:

The council has confirmed that a team social worker who visited Steven Gale , after he jumped from a third-floor window to escape what was said to be a domestic row, found him ‘to be very capable, apparently happy, and he was adamant he didn’t want any help or services from us’. Further information I have obtained denies, however, that the council had decided not to intervene, saying instead, in double-speak: ‘No decision had therefore been made not to give Mr Gale any extra support.’ Steven Gale starved to death a few months after he threw himself from the window. He was described by a social worker as ‘reluctant to engage’. I suspect that if a woman had thrown herself out of a window after a domestic row, police and social workers would not describe her as ‘reluctant to engage’ but would conclude, instead, that she was living in fear of her life and was a ‘vulnerable and intimidated witness’.

Adequate space is given to allow the read to easily explore the ideas and social commentary that are presented. Whilst a powerful resource for those who may have little to no contact with the prejudices that disabled people face, it may be obvious or upsetting in many ways to the individuals who deal with physical or mental disability.

Despite its imperfections, this book has a great deal to give. It was somewhat surprising how little disability hate crime has been recognised, and the extent of social failure that still occurs by gatekeepers, caregivers, and the public. Maybe this book will be eventually overshadowed when this field of inquiry receives the attention it certainly deserves, but I don’t recommend you wait. This book deserves your time.

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