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!
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.
David Wilkin Postgraduate Researcher,
Centre for Hate Studies: Department of Criminology, University of Leicester.
Copyright free images: from author