We've never had so many laws to protect people, but it hasn't made us any kinder, has it?" said the social worker from the Somerset learning disabilities team who came to assess my learning disabled brother recently.
Ever since I can remember, my 50-year-old brother has been shouted at when he walks down the street. Even at work — he has held down a job as a supermarket trolley boy for 21 years — he is an object of ridicule. Employees delight in teasing him and then reporting him when he loses his temper. Local youths have thrown stones at him in the store car park, while the security guard, managers and police did nothing.
The police didn't do anything when our family home was targeted either — not about the eggs thrown at the walls nor about the jeering in the garden after dark. If my 80-year-old mother was out, my brother would cower with the lights off for fear that these yobs would smash the picture window — again — if they knew he was there. The insurance company refused to pay out after the fifth time.
Once when his tormentors were outside, my brother called the police in a frenzy. "If you go on like this, we'll arrest you and your mother," the officer snarled.
In the end my mother and brother moved, and so were luckier than Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter, or David Askew, who collapsed and died while being goaded by youths in Greater Manchester. And certainly more fortunate than another recent mentally disabled victim, Michael Gilbert, who was kept as a slave for ten years before being murdered and dismembered by the family who took him in.
What is shocking is that this brutality is so commonplace. According to a Mencap survey, 90 per cent of learning disabled people are bullied. We no longer hide them away in institutions, but our ability to empathise with these vulnerable people has not kept pace with the shift in their rights and opportunities.
Disability hate crime is — as the phrase suggests — a crime, whether the disability is physical or mental. It is just as serious as racially motivated crime or attacks prompted by homophobia or religious hatred. But few people — public, employers, police — know this part of the legislation exists. Yet the degree of success police and prosecutors have had tackling race, religious and gay crime is proof that attitudes can change.
The unkindness starts young. It's a default position. But when I see my son at his primary school learning sign language to communicate with children who attend the deaf unit there, it makes me believe that kindness and tolerance can be learnt too. There should perhaps be less emphasis on rights and laws, and more on looking out for the less fortunate. Schools are the obvious place to promote this new compassion.
We need of course to use the perfectly good legislation that already exists but, more than anything, we need to believe in the spirit of the law and apply it in our dealings with the learning disabled. The first step is to talk about it. Otherwise, we risk shoving them into another, very modern kind of institution — that secret place away from the media gaze.