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‘The Patronisers Club and the Calculator of Hate’: A Bigoted Focus on Disability Continues

When will the disabled experience be seen and valued in a humane way?

Photo: ifeelstock/Alamy

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I’ll begin with the event. I had a stall selling my books – hands-on has to be done sometimes. The day started well, with sales of my memoir First in the World Somewhere and my poetry collection Come Home Alive. I enjoy meeting people who may like reading my work. Generally, this is a positive experience. 

So how can I describe the incidents that unravelled? 

I like to believe I have a balanced approach to negativity and never make easy assumptions. But sometimes, just sometimes, I want to say: for f*ck’s sake, I’ve had enough.

Amid the charming encounters and the odd signing, there were people who turned ignorance and superiority into an art form. They were well-to-do, reeking of privilege in their clothes, their voices, and even their expressions. All these things, yes, could be dismissed as my working-class prejudices – but when they opened their mouths…

Mine was the first table as people came through the entrance. The first books to browse at a bookselling event. I was proud of my display, with my new poster there in a Perspex frame announcing me:




My postcards were spread around. My smiley face and contact details. Always: writer, poet, speaker. And what did they ask? Patroniser Number One, after a few mumbles and nervous eye contact, muttered ‘oh, selling for charity? How nice for you!’ 

This Penny Pepper – writer, poet, speaker – was speechless (not something that happens often, as all my friends and colleagues would testify). Patroniser Number One was talking a language so remote from mine that I could not possibly comprehend.

Patroniser Two skimmed by a little later, startled when I revealed I had actually written these books – that they were by me, surprisingly enough. They then added: ‘Oh, you write little things for children do you?’ There it was – yet more confirmation that I do not exist and cannot be a writer. I am the charity case; I must be the volunteer for a charity; my default role as any kind of writer is naturally to write for children.

Yet here’s a funny thing. While making these statements, the Patronisers’ Club was browsing my disability erotica collection Desires, which in 2023 celebrates its 20th year. The first story on a single title page is ‘Girls Wank Too’… so perhaps they also had a moment they could not comprehend! 

A few days later, having a coffee with my partner outside our favourite café in sunny St Leonards-on-Sea, a group of young women walked by. One turned back and yelled something as she looked at us. All I heard was “that spasticated man!” It’s always worse when it isn’t you but a loved one. 

I boiled with an outrage that made me want to vomit. My partner didn’t hear and I realised they were teenagers. Silly, showing-off, teenagers. But that didn’t help the rage.  Again, I’d had enough. 

‘The Price of Sausages: The Telegraph’s Calculator of Hate’

Attacks on disabled people have all too often dressed themselves in the clothes of good housekeeping – as the newspaper’s tax calculator suggests

But these events shrink into proverbial insignificance compared to the vile hate that the Telegraph unloaded on disabled people.

On 1 June, it published an online article containing a handy calculator so readers could work out the proportion of their tax that is spent on welfare. As Stephen Unwin observes in these pages, the calculator was “eerily reminiscent of Nazi attempts to evaluate vulnerable people according to cost”.

And so the abuse continues. Roll up, roll up! See what you pay the lowly scrounger, when the vicious taxman grabs at your hard-earned millions! Who will you fund? The cripple in the chair who you can pity? The idiot boy who’s deaf and dumb? Definitely not the mental case shirker who stayed in bed for a year!

One might ask what the Telegraph meant by ‘welfare costs’. They would not dare – would they? – to ask the same questions about pensions…

The Nazis used the term “useless eaters” to refer to the disabled – there’s more than a hint of that with the Telegraph’s calculator. These attitudes were reflected again recently on Channel 5’s Jeremy Vine, which journalist Frances Ryan recently called out for leading “a debate about ‘cracking down’ on ‘jobless benefits’ for sick people” – with the programme asking: “Is it wrong for taxpayers to fund them indefinitely?”

All human beings within the human family cannot be reduced to such packets of worth; of a capitalist uselessness. In her book Crippled, Ryan maintains that the concept of urging funds for us based on ‘it’ll happen to you one day’ is not the most persuasive when what needs pointing out is that disabled people should be supported now within the same terms that we accept – and love. Funding our NHS and education system. Would the Telegraph create a calculator for the funds that go into these services? 

It all comes to hidden and suppressed narratives; patronisers who have control in the media and beyond, resulting in the interminable wait for the disabled experience to be seen, shared and valued. 

We are only human after all – aren’t we?

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