Learning disabled people living in the community
finding themselves the victims
of so-called mate crime
Tuesday 14 September 2010
This article was published on guardian.co.uk
at 16.15 BST
on Tuesday 14
A version appeared on p3 of the SocietyGuardian section
of the Guardian
Wednesday 15 September 2010.
Steven Hoskin had strong feelings about his killers. They had
abused, exploited and humiliated him over a year, taking his money, treating him
as their slave and making him wear his own dog's collar and lead. Eventually,
having forced him to swallow 70 painkillers, they took him to the top of a
railway viaduct and made him hang from the railings as one member of the gang, a
girl aged 16, stamped on his hands until he fell 30 metres to his death.
Yet these were the people the 38-year-old, who had severe learning disabilities,
had boasted excitedly of counting as friends. "He thought they were the cat's
whiskers," says Morley Richards, who had known Hoskin before he met the group.
"He would say, 'They're my mates, I've got my own mates now.'"
Hoskin's case is extreme, but the phenomenon of learning disabled people being
groomed by those who pretend to be their friends before being exploited by them
financially, physically or sexually – "mate crime", as it is sometimes known –
is far from rare, experts say, and appears to be on the increase. As more
individuals are given the chance to live independently, the unwelcome side
effect is that they are more likely to fall prey to criminals. Hoskin was a case
in point: he had left the tiny Cornish village of Maudlin, near Bodmin, where he
had grown up, and was thrilled to have his own bedsit in the market town of St
Austell, where he made his new "friends".
The Association for Real Change (ARC) has been researching mate crime for the
past year in Calderdale, west Yorkshire, and in north Devon, after a groundswell
of concern among its members who are service providers for people with learning
disabilities. Examples it has been told about range from perpetrators routinely
going to a victim's house and clearing their cupboards of food and alcohol
before leaving them to clear up the mess, to instances of people being persuaded
to part with their benefits.
Women can be sexually exploited by men who claim to be their boyfriend, says
David Grundy, who runs the Calderdale project. "They might be told, 'We're a
couple and we haven't got any money – if you sleep with my mate he'll pay us.'"
In other cases, someone with learning disabilities may be asked to look after a
package that contains drugs and end up being beaten up as a result, or go
shoplifting with their new-found friends carrying a weapon, only to get caught
The victim may not realise that what is happening is wrong. "There can be a
feeling of, 'He's my friend, that's what friends do,'" says Grundy. "People with
learning disabilities have fewer friends. For some, any friends is better than
no friends, even if they're spending all your money.
"It involves a lot of issues [around] self-belief and self-worth: thinking it's
all right for people to walk all over them all the time, because that's what's
happened to them the whole of their lives."
Rod Landman, from the north Devon project, likens the situation to domestic
violence. "The primacy of the relationship can be more important than what's
happening inside it. People are prepared to put up with all sorts of crap to
keep a relationship that may be the only one they have apart from with someone
who's being paid to be with them." As a result, victims shy away from reporting
such hate crime incidents to the police, or indeed anyone. Every service
provider that Landman talks to will tell him of cases, he says, but no one with
learning disabilities will do the same.
Some families and frontline social care staff are still unaware of what
constitutes a disability hate crime and what to do when one happens, says
Grundy. Abusive relationships may get flagged up to adult safeguarding teams,
but their primary aim is to keep the individual safe by removing them from the
situation, rather than report those committing the crimes. This means that
perpetrators remain free to target others.
As cuts lead to the closure of day centres and potentially less support for
vulnerable people, there are fears that the situation could get worse. Gavin
Harding, vice-chair of the National Forum for People with Learning Disabilities,
remembers the shock and anger he felt five years ago when he realised that
someone he believed to be a friend had taken his cheque book and, together with
another man, forged a cheque for £500.
"It was the fact they took advantage of me," he says. "It felt awful. You feel
you can't trust people after that."
• Information on ARC's Safety Net project is at arcsafety.net
tedious stories and pats on the back:
the three different reactions I get
when people find out I have no legs
Monday 20 July 2009
This article was first published
on guardian.co.uk at 00.05 BST
on Monday 20
It appeared in the Guardian on Monday 20 July 2009
on p12 of the Comment &
It was last updated at 00.05 BST
on Monday 20 July 2009.
I was born without legs. I've used artificial ones for most of my life, and
at first glance it's not obvious why I need crutches (stick with me; you need
this information for background). For some time now, I've been fascinated by the
strangely formulaic responses and reactions I get from people who are meeting me
for the first time, or even just looking in my direction.
The British are, as we know, fairly reserved, polite, and often awkward. Which
means most of the time when I meet new people, they don't ask why I'm on
crutches. All that changes, however, if I'm out at night and the drinks are
flowing. The interest levels seem to rise in parallel with the alcohol levels,
and it's extraordinary how often I am clocked over the course of an evening by a
sincere nod and the phrase: "Well done for coming out, mate."
Occasionally this phrase is accompanied by a reassuring squeeze of my left
shoulder but that's it: no further conversation, no attempt to discover how
difficult it has been for me to "come out". Which is a shame, because I usually
have a fascinating tale to tell about a contact lens crisis that could so easily
have scuppered my plans.
Other times I'll get a "well done for coming out, mate" shout from a stranger
walking in the opposite direction – without either of us slowing our steps. It
makes me wonder if there was a day at school I missed when textbook uses of the
phrase were taught. It just seems so peculiar that so many people use the exact
same wording. "Well done for coming out, mate" – it's like an automatic response
every time they see someone on crutches having a drink.
And (if it's OK with you) I do enjoy having the odd drink. In fact, back in my
"wild" student days, my party trick in nightclubs was to hop out of my
artificial legs, walk upside-down on my hands, climb podiums and make a general
spectacle of myself. There's a club in Leeds – at least, there was in my day –
which served double tequila shots for a pound a go (if you don't know it, it's
the only one I know of with a St John ambulance parked permanently outside). I
still maintain I'm the only person who has ever been asked to leave this
particular establishment and needed two taxis to transport all of me home.
On another occasion, I remember finding out who I could impress by jumping out
of my legs and climbing up to the top of the dance podium (well, it seemed a
good idea at the time). A literal out-of-body experience: when I looked down, my
legs were crowdsurfing all around the dance floor.
I'm older and possibly a little wiser now, and I have come to the conclusion
that the world can be divided into three distinct groups. The aforementioned
"well done for coming out, mate" group, the Inquisitors, and the Troubled.
The Inquisitors are interested, curious – and demand answers. Normally a short,
occasionally awkward conversation ensues while I explain my lack of legs.
Commonly, an Inquisitor's mission during this conversation is to find a line of
questioning that is staggeringly original. I'm 30 now, and I can count on one
hand the number of times they have succeeded. One such time, I remember being
questioned in a dark and loud club at about 2am by a girl who wanted to know
what my legs were made from. This in itself is not unusual, and I went into my
automatic response mode.
"They're very complicated," I explained condescendingly, "but there's a lot of
foam, cables and metal inside."
"Oh," she replied, "which metal?"
This had me scrabbling into the depths of my memory for early physics lessons at
school, never a subject that filled me with confidence.
"Titanium?" I hesitatingly suggested.
"Don't you know for sure?" she sneered. "I would have thought you'd know exactly
which metal was in your legs."
Sometimes curiosity gets the better of an Inquisitor, and they ask if they can
"have a feel". I assume this is partly to check whether I've been lying to them,
and it can give off the wrong impression having strangers squeezing me up and
down while I nurse a drink and chat to friends. When the examination is over,
the Inquisitor usually turns to me and agrees that I was right – I don't have
Another characteristic of an Inquisitor is that they are keen to "have a go" on
my crutches. And it doesn't seem to matter where I am. I might be in the middle
of the dance floor, precariously holding a pint of lager when someone approaches
and asks if I'm using those crutches. It's hard to find an answer sarcastic
enough for this question, but I find "no, no, they're just accessories"
I'm being unfairly harsh; in fact, I have been known to let someone "have a go"
if I'm sitting down or leaning against a pillar and my sticks are redundant. But
what I do know is that you should never, ever lend your crutches to a hen do –
not if you want to see them again, anyway.
On the whole, I reckon I can cope with Inquisitors. The Troubled are my bete
noire. They're well-meaning, of course, but exasperating. The Troubled presume,
after finding out why I'm on crutches, that I will naturally also be interested
in their tales of skiing accidents, sprained ankles, and the time they tripped
up over a raised paving stone. Typically, no names have been exchanged
beforehand and no breath is inhaled while I'm forced to listen to this tedium in
Occasionally, the Troubled wish to talk about more serious times; they want to
share with me their personal family tragedies. (Why? As any of my friends will
testify, sympathy is not my greatest trait.) And so I find myself nodding,
trying to look sympathetic, as a stranger tells me about his second cousin's
motorbike accident five years ago.
I don't wish to sound heartless, but when you're on a night out with your
friends, enjoying a few drinks and having a good time, finding yourself
embroiled in a stranger's troubles can be a little . . . deflating. I understand
that seeing someone on crutches can remind you of your time on them (and I do
even enjoy having my ego massaged by a temporary crutch user about my abilities
on sticks), but it doesn't follow that I'm the best person to talk to about more
severe, general disasters.
So, when a guy who had been telling me about his cousin's motorcycle accident
finally stopped for a moment to ask how his cousin's paralysis compared to my
life, all I could tell him was that it didn't compare at all. I was very sorry
to hear about his cousin's situation, but I had no concept of what life was like
for him. How could I?
Still, the Troubled, the Inquisitors and the "well done for coming out, mate"
groups do all share one positive influence on my life. I should, at least, be
grateful to them all for never allowing me to feel like I'm fading into the
background, ignored. And when I've made such a show of my artificial legs and
crutches in the past, I can hardly gripe when people notice, can I?