Ian Birrell: It's not just the bad apples – it's our rotten society's attitudes

The assaults at Winterbourne View were horrific. But just as shocking were the systematic failures of one protective authority after another to stop them
  • @ianbirrell

The details are disturbing, a horrific blast from the darkest days of the past. Lonely people with learning difficulties punched and kicked – their bones broken, their fingers wrenched back, teeth knocked out and hair pulled – in the home that should have been their sanctuary. The police came 29 times, but pursued just one case of assault, while nearly 80 times victims were rushed to hospital, yet medical staff failed to suspect anything. When the battered victims complained, they were dismissed; who would believe someone with learning difficulties? Forty times, the local safeguarding board received alerts, and 40 times they accepted staff assurances. When a carer blew the whistle, the official watchdog did not listen.

The assaults at Winterbourne View were horrific. But just as shocking were the systematic failures of one protective authority after another to stop them, their bungling and casual complacency ensuring the torture continued unabated. Only when Panorama exposed what was going on did anything happen.

Perhaps most shocking, however, is the gut-wrenching normality of such abuse in a nation that still hides away people with disabilities and drugs them to the eyeballs. We are about to host the Paralympics – yet hidden away in buildings across the country are people with learning difficulties living in fear and misery.

On Tuesday, as the serious case review into Winterbourne View was published, two charities revealed they had received 260 reports from families of abuse, neglect and over-use of restraint on people in care since the BBC exposé was screened last May. This is just the tip of an iceberg. Of course, we hear Winterbourne is a watershed, a scandal never to happen again. Like so many times before. The inquiries are conducted, the recommendations made – and the abuse goes on. We point the finger at a few bad apples. Yes, these bullies are beneath contempt. Yes, the authorities were happy to pay £3,500 a week to keep the unfortunate victims out of sight, but failed in their duty of care. And yes, the Care Quality Commission, the official watchdog, is the most incompetent public body in the country.

But it is too easy to blame thugs and faceless bodies. There is something rotten in our society – and the stench is getting worse. For all the high-profile cases such as Fiona Pilkington, killing herself and her disabled daughter after years of abuse, hate crimes against people in wheelchairs, on sticks and with learning difficulties are reported with sickening regularity. Nearly half of disabled people have found attitudes hardening against them over the past year, according to a survey by Scope.

Consider why the disabled in Britain must endure a gauntlet of hate. Research shows that unlike other hate crime offenders, abusers of disabled people are more likely to act in groups, demonstrating the acceptability of such assaults. They are also more likely to be women, or even children, they often know their victims, and the levels of violence are higher. As Katharine Quarmby showed in her brilliant book Scapegoat, the prejudices shown by perpetrators reflect prejudices in society. Historically, people with disabilities have been feared, scapegoated and dehumanised. "I'm not going down for a muppet," said one of the killers of a disabled man beaten to death for "fun" in Sunderland, a telling turn of phrase. Old bigotries have fused with new prejudices to form a particularly toxic stew.

This is why the demonisation of the disabled by some politicians and journalists is so dangerous, especially amid economic downturn. The public now believes that up to 70 per cent of disabled people on benefits are faking it. They are seen as workshy, called scroungers, screamed at in the street – and the consequence is people living as prisoners in their homes and abused in institutions. And this is why it is so corrosive to give so-called comics a platform to solidify the stereotypes. This is why it matters when teachers do nothing about playground name-calling, when celebrities popularise words such as "retard" or when employers cold-shoulder disabled job-seekers.

It is easy to blame others for Winterbourne's horrors. It is easy to change the rules. What seems so much harder is for society to change its antediluvian attitudes. But until we do so, this will be just another in a long list of hideous hate crimes against people with disabilities.