Deborah Orr: We must protect disabled people against this wave of barbaric and hateful crimes

He died in his mother's arms, so badly beaten that his uncle did not at first recognise his face

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Brent Martin's story should, and could, have been a story of quiet success. The 23-year-old had struggled in his short life with his learning difficulties, and those struggles more than once had become so serious that he had been compelled to spend long periods in psychiatric hospitals. Even a generation ago, such a history might have condemned a young man to an institutionalised life. But we are more enlightened now, in theory at least.

Martin, released in spring of last year into the care of his family, was recognised as a man who was quite capable of living independently, supporting himself through work, paying his taxes, living and loving like the equal member of a civilised society that he was, or should have been. In August last year, he was winning. He was about to start a new job as a landscape gardener, about to move into a flat and live on his own for the first time, and enjoying the time that he spent with his girlfriend.

Then, on 23 August, he was chased for a mile and a half through two estates in Sunderland. Repeatedly, he was set upon by 21-year-old William Hughes, and two boys of 16 and 17. Between them – they had trained as boxers – they bet £5 that one of them could knock him out with their fists. Their attacks got more frenzied until they started kicking Brent, and stamping on him. They removed his lower clothing, at the end, and took photographs of their bloodied selves to mark the occasion.

Brent died in his mother's arms of a massive head injury. He had been so badly beaten that his uncle did not at first recognise his face. Hughes and the 16-year-old admitted murder, while the 17-year-old was found guilty of murder at Newcastle Crown Court last week, after telling witnesses that "he was not going down for a muppet". All three have been warned that they face mandatory life imprisonment, when sentencing takes place next month.

What is the worst thing about this abhorrent crime against a vulnerable person? The worst thing is that it is by no means the most horrific recent example of escalating violence against people with disabilities. Over the last couple of years, a slew of vicious and often fatal crimes against people with physical or mental disadvantages have come to trial. Sometimes, the ordeals of victims went on for many months before they died.

Steven Hoskin, 39, was targeted over a long period by 30-year-old Darren Stewart, along with his girlfriend, Sarah Bullock, 17, Martin Pollard, 21, and a shifting cast of teenagers who were attracted, presumably, by Stewart's drug-dealing. Stewart, it had long been known, had moved into Steven's tiny flat . He had been commandeering his benefit money, and hitting him if he tried to resist.

Material and financial abuse developed into mental and physical abuse, which for some dark reason reached its perverted climax on the evening of 6 July 2006. Steven, who had a reading age of six, was tortured, taunted, burnt with cigarettes and yanked around on a dog's lead, until he confessed, erroneously, to being a paedophile.

Having extracted their "confession", the three of them fed him 70 Paracetamol tablets, and marched him to Trenance Viaduct in St Austell, where they forced him over the rail. He fell 30 metres to his death. Bullock kicked his head and stamped on his fingertips to help him on his way.

The Cornwall Adult Protection Committee published a Serious Case Review that investigated the protracted events leading up to Steven's murder last month. It identified 40 occasions on which various support services had had an opportunity to intervene. Until a month before his death, social services had visited Steven weekly. Despite the presence of Stewart, who was locally notorious, they saw no cause for concern. When Steven requested that the visits should stop, a month before his death – presumably under pressure from the people he sometimes described, happily, as "his gang" – they complied. Steven also asked the police for assistance 12 times, but had no luck.

This case ought to have achieved a prominence similar to the Victoria Climbie case, or the Stephen Lawrence case, but so far there is little sign of wide-spread unease. This is particularly worrying because even cruelty of this magnitude is by no means unique. Under the leadership of the estimable Katherine Quarmby, Disability Now magazine has identified four other recent cases in which "financial abuse" of disabled people living independently exploded into terminal violence.

Raymond Atherton, Kevin Davies, Rikki Judkins and Barrie-John Horrell all suffered a similar pattern of abuse before they were killed by people purporting to be their friends. Yet, despite legislation under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which identified hostility based on "the disability or perceived disability of the victim" as a hate crime, none of these five cases was identified as a potential disability hate crime.

Disability Now investigated 50 crimes against disabled people in 2006 and 2007, 14 resulting in death, many others in serious injury, and a substantial number involving attacks on people in wheelchairs or using mobility scooters, and established that only two of them had been treated as hate crimes. The magazine is now campaigning for hate crimes against disabled people to be recognised as such.

There remains a school of thought which scoffs at the idea that attacks inspired by a particular prejudice should be treated as especially heinous. The argument is that murder or violence is murder or violence, whatever sets it off. This is not a sensible view. It is really important to highlight particular prejudices as unacceptable triggers for crimes, as this concentrates public outrage and raises wider awareness of specific dangers.

Also, it offers particular lawful protection for the groups that need it most, adjusting the balance in the favour of those under attack, or at least formally acknowledging the need for such an adjustment.

Survey after survey confirms that the disabled are massively more likely to be assaulted than their typically-abled peers. In 2002 the crime prevention organisation, Nacro, found that disabled people are four times as likely to be violently attacked, and twice as likely to be burgled. A more recent report by the cerebral palsy charity Scope found that 47 per cent of disabled people had either experienced physical abuse or witnessed the physical abuse of a disabled friend.

Practical counter-measures are needed when such additional stresses are being perpetrated against already vulnerable people in such a widespread manner. The advances that have been made towards the full participation of disabled people in everyday life are still fragile, and they need to be defended. A concentrated effort to reduce the barbaric lack of stigma around such a cowardly form of criminality is absolutely essential.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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