Covering Up: How Covid-19 regulation victimises disabled people in the UK

The Covid-19 virus has had a wide impact in the UK. But how have disabled people been adversely affected by the governments’ regulation of coronavirus?

D WilkinD Wilkin presenting David Wilkin’s specialism is disability hate crime (DHC). His activities include public speaking, lecturing, publishing and consultation work with the UK police and other authorities. David has been both a victim of DHC and is a passionate campaigner to bring these crimes to light. David conducts research on the topic and is in continuing contact with victims of DHC and their associates. In 2020, David was awarded an Honorary Fellowship at the School of Criminology at the University of Leicester. He is also the Lead Coordinator of the UK-based Disability Hate Crime Network.

On June 4th 2020 the UK Secretary of State for Transport announced, as part of the measures to control the Covid-19 pandemic, the mandatory wearing of face coverings on public transport within England and this would commence 11 days later. He did this by way of a Statutory Instrument under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. Face coverings are not surgical masks but are improvised methods of helping to stymy the spread of the virus in confined spaces by reducing droplets escaping from the mouth and nose. Latterly they became mandatory on public transport in Scotland and in Wales. Staff and police officers are not required to wear coverings but the police can issue a £100 fine for any non-wearing of coverings which is reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days. However, although the wearing of these garments appears to be mandatory, there are a number of exemptions from wearing them for disabled people or for those who might become distressed by wearing face coverings. These exemptions were published by the UK government on 14th June 2020 and were subsequently updated three times. The announcement that these coverings would be mandatory was made on prime-time UK national television, but the exemptions from wearing them did not attract similar exposure. Moreover, this supposedly mandatory requirement has been re-broadcast by both UK bus and railway operators but without the same widespread endorsement of the exemptions. This has resulted in peer-policing of the wearing of coverings – often to the detriment of disabled people who had a legitimate reason for not wearing them. Disabled people have become victims of hostility and abuse for not wearing coverings by other members of the public who may, or may not, be aware of the existence of exemptions.

It additionally became mandatory to wear face coverings in shops in Scotland from 10th July 2020 and in England from 24th July 2020. In preparation for enforcing these regulations Dame Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the UKs most senior police officer, said that people not wearing ‘masks’ should be “shamed into complying or shamed to leave the store by the store keepers or by other members of the public” (BBC, 2020). This comment from a national leader seems to justify the peer-policing of people who might actually have a legitimate reason for not wearing a face covering.

Soon after the introduction of mandatory face coverings on public transport, disabled people started to contact the author. At the time of writing 46 notifications had been expressed. One female, who could not wear anything covering her face because of breathing difficulties, was ridiculed by another passenger. The perpetrator addressed fellow train passengers whilst pointing to the victim and blaming her for ‘deliberately infecting other people’ and ‘trying to bring other’s down to her level’. In a similar attack where the victim was portrayed similar to ‘the star of a freak show’, a female perpetrator shouted above the head of the wheelchair-using victim saying that ‘everyone should stand well clear – this one isn’t wearing a mask’. The offender also stated, whilst specifying the victim, that ‘these people are a threat to us all’.

In another incident on a train, a male approached a victim who became distressed when their face was covered and removed the mask. The perpetrator dangled a surgical mask in front of the victim and loudly said ‘put this on’. He was laughing and engaging fellow passengers when he went on to say ‘you lot [disabled people] should be able to afford one of these with all your benefits’. The offender, more threateningly, then said ‘put it on, we don’t want your pox’. The victim then applied the mask to placate the offender but left the train at the next station, unable to complete his journey. During an incident on a bus, the male bus driver told a female using two walking sticks that she could not board without wearing a mask. The victim, with humour, stated that ‘it kept falling off’ and that she ‘had no hands available to hold it on’. The driver, aware of her obvious predicament, then said ‘no mask – no ride’. To seemingly justify his comments he went on to say ‘it’s my job to protect the public on this bus and I’m going to do it’. The victim then applied the face covering but, as predicted, it kept falling off. This brought laughter from some of the other passengers – but the victim ignored this as she needed to attend a medical appointment. The driver also found the situation amusing and laughed loudly.

Aside from direct attacks for not wearing face coverings, disabled people have communicated other Covid-19-related incidents to the author. Socially distanced queuing has now become the norm. Partially sighted people have reported that they have been abused for not socially distancing, a facet which guide dogs have not been trained to accomplish. Moreover, people with some sight impairments are unable to perceive depth and distance. Disabled correspondents have also expressed that they have been pushed out of queues, or that the queue has circumnavigated itself around them so that they are no longer in it. Other disabled people, using wheelchairs or other bulky equipment, have been unable to use their customary route around a railway station because of chairs and tables being placed outside of cafés and bars to necessitate social distancing inside the premises. This, again, has had an especially profound effect on people with limited vision.

The world is in a crisis. State authorities and ordinary people alike are coping with situations which were, until recently, alien to them. Governments need to issue, and occasionally enforce, regulations which were speedily constructed under emergency conditions. Guidance and regulation is arguably necessary to establish public safety and to control the pandemic. However, one thing that is glaringly obvious from these incidents is that governments and national agencies need to broadcast clear and balanced instructions. The use of the word mandatory has led public transport operators and their customers to believe that there is no conceivable choice but to wear face coverings. Furthermore, although exemptions to wearing face coverings have been cited by the UK government, these have not been transmitted with the same urgency or bandwidth as has the need to wear face coverings. Much could be gained, and much victimisation reduced, by the use of measured language and its considered delivery.

Reference

BBC(British Broadcasting Corporation) (2020), Coronavirus: London police to enforce face masks ‘as last resort’, online at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-53498100, (Accessed: 24/07/2020).

Contact

David Wilkin, Honorary Fellow at the School of Criminology, University of Leicester

https://le.ac.uk/criminology/people/honorary/dr-david-wilkin

Lead Coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network

https://www.facebook.com/groups/disabilityhatecrimenetwork

Email: drw25@le.ac.uk

Twitter: @DavidRWilkin

Images: courtesy of the author

How Lucky Am I: Victim, to Researcher, back to Victim

This article plots a course from being a victim of hate crime to passionately researching hate crimes; in doing so, the author relives shared victim experience.

David Wilkin is a Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Leicester; considered as a mature student, although (in his words) any prospect of attaining maturity remains a distant concept. Following a long career in public transport and business he is now impassioned to understand why people can be so fervent in their abuse of others.

How lucky was I? I recall as a child how much I loathed the bus or train trip to school. I wore black-framed, National Health Service (NHS)–issued, heavy spectacles with thick lenses and I had a psychological disorder which resulted in unusual mannerisms. Little wonder then that I was a victim of hate and abuse. If I had been an abuser, I would have sought a similarly ‘soft target’. So, to avoid this daily obstacle-course of abuse, I gave up going to school. I intercepted school reports suggesting that I should ‘pop-in occasionally’ and forged my father’s signature on the related receipt slips. I left school not knowing how to construct a grammatical sentence but I could complete a form. So I joined the railway: a stable work environment from which I eventually did learn that grammar was not simply my mother’s mother!

Cab interior of Flying Scotsman
Author on the footplate of the famous Flying Scotsman locomotive, 2016.

My perspective of what a victim was changed over the succeeding 30 years. From having been a victim, I now witnessed victimisation. As a train driver I was involved in two suicides. At the subsequent inquests, I learned how these victims had been traumatised by the harshness of life until they could no longer cope. I had my apology ready for the parents of one victim, a 15-year old girl. But they apologised to me first and I don’t know which of us cried the most. I recall that moment in detail, notwithstanding that it was 25 years ago.

Working in public transportation, you observe a range of human behaviours at all times of day or night; from altruism to unbelievable cruelty. Some of these acts were latterly to become termed as hate crimes: some perpetrated on minorities; on rival football fans; on disabled people. Of this final category, I once witnessed a man in a wheelchair being pushed on to the electrified track by a group of youths. I turned the power off and, with others, got him to safety. He was scared, shaking, crying and inconsolable: this was to become another haunting memory. Latterly, I managed railway operations and became a consultant to the industry. Understanding the difficulties faced by disabled customers was one facet of my work. I started to comprehend the daily hostility faced by some on our services. After leaving the industry, I gained qualifications in Criminology and wanted to further explore disability hate crime (DHC) through postgraduate research. I found that although public transport is an established environment for triggering hate crimes that this was an under-researched subject.

I am now performing that research. To date, I have spoken with 62 victims and witnesses, via interview and focus group mediation. There have been times when they have shared sketches of human behaviour at its worst. Their honesty in sharing this is humbling. Victims have recounted appalling remarks regarding their impairments, disclosed psychologically hurtful strategies and physical violence. All this targeted against people who already feel physically weakened, frightened and isolated. Already physically drained by having to propel a wheelchair and manoeuvring it onto a bus they then have to negotiate a safe location to park their ‘chairs. As if this were not enough, then they are further burdened with undeserved experiences of being told that you are an encumbrance on the state, that you will delay the bus and even that you stink. These are unwelcome additions to your journey from fellow passengers and additionally sometimes even from staff. During my research I heard from people who regularly suffer abuse that would stun most non-disabled people albeit if it only occurred rarely.

I came to experience people sharing their experiences through innovative techniques which I had not previously considered as customary methods of communication. Participants pointing at imagined abusers to illustrate their experiences, or drawing diagrams of where their abuser stood on the bus, or seeing people use video to explain their abuse because they had no other way of imparting it. Being involved in the dynamic of a focus group where two or three people relate their experiences through the tears of their pain and realising that you too are shedding tears, that you too are becoming a victim again through the sharing of their pain. Even though I did not directly experience their victimisation, it brought back recollections of previous encounters in my life from over fifty years ago, burned into my memory forever; sharing the horror of being victims together, although decades of difference divided our experiences.

On a lighter note, there was the wheelchair-bound victim who proudly wanted to give me a practical demonstration of when he confronted a young male abuser on a bus. This young man had refused to vacate the dedicated wheelchair space and then exhibited threatened violence against my participant. My contributor beckoned me closer to him and said: ‘I held him by the throat and told him what I thought of him’. To add realism to this demonstration he grasped me by the neck and had to be dissuaded from continuing with his resourceful demonstration. He then apologised profusely. Strange, that either emotionally, or physically, I was once again a victim of hate crime: even if only secondarily.

However the depth of my particular distress, it was nothing compared to that suffered by the participants to my study. Once I have completed the collation and analysis of data I will compare these experiences with the equality objectives and duty of care to safeguard all passengers which is incumbent upon regulatory authorities and public transport providers in the UK. My aspiration is to discover if any shortfalls of meeting statutory obligations are evident and, if so, does this increase the risk to potential victims of disability hate crime? If safeguards are not being applied to protect all passengers who use public transport, especially disabled people, then this will be communicated to the UK Department for Transport and key agencies within the public transport infrastructure. This is to provide a research-based incentive in the hope that vulnerable customers will be looked after and also encouraged to use public transport; sometimes the only method of independence to which they have access.

I began this blog by asking how lucky was I to have been a victim of abuse. I finish by discovering that no experience, no matter how distressing, is unique in this world. Someone, somewhere, will have endured it as well. In this criminological exploration of human experience, being able to share experiential knowledge of victimisation has been helpful to both the participants and to the researcher.

 

Contact

David Wilkin Postgraduate Researcher,

Centre for Hate Studies: Department of Criminology, University of Leicester.

Email: drw24@leicester.ac.uk

Twitter: @DavidRWilkin

Website:

https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/criminology/people/phd/david-wilkin

 

Copyright free images: from author