Investigating Disability Hate Crimes in the United Kingdom

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently announced that it is conducting an inquiry into disability hate crimes, on the basis of research demonstrating that people with disabilities are much more likely to experience hate crimes than nondisabled people. There have been several high profile cases of bullying and abuse leading to deaths in the UK that have attracted public attention in recent years; I see a lot of articles citing the Fiona Pilkington case, where a woman killed herself and her daughter after prolonged inaction on clearly documented abuse.

According to a report  issued by the EHRC (I can only find a .pdf version, unfortunately), disabled persons in Britain are four times more likely to experience violence than other people, and the likelihood of experiencing violence goes up for people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Almost half of the people involved in the study reported experiences of abuse. In a statement on the report, the EHRC says:

It is not the disabled person who creates their own oppression. It is others. As Sir Ken Macdonald so eloquently argued in one of his final speeches as Director of Public Prosecutions, we must overcome a prevailing assumption that it is disabled people’s intrinsic vulnerability which explains the risk they face – an assumption unsupported by evidence. At best, this had led to protectionism, constraining rather than expanding the individual freedom and opportunity which greater safety and security should provide. Only by extending the same expectations of safety and security to disabled people as to everyone else can we truly come to address the deficits in our current approach and wake up to the need to act. (source)

The new inquiry is designed to gather more information about harassment and abuse experienced by people with disabilities and what kind of support is being provided when people report it. Poor statistics are maintained on disability hate crimes and the EHRC is also concerned that a lot of abuse is going unreported. There are significant complications when it comes to reporting abuse; what do you do, for example, when your abuser is your caregiver? What do you do when you are not provided with tools for reporting? What do you do when you don’t recognise what is happening as abuse because you haven’t been given information about the dynamics of abuse and harassment and it’s all you’ve ever known? What do you do when the people you are told to report to choose to ignore your reports or claim that there is nothing they can do?

I’m hoping that it will lead to some recommendations designed to combat harassment and abuse, and subsequent action on those recommendations. It’s easy to make statements and write reports about what should be done, but it’s harder to put these things into action. Full integration into society requires being treated like we belong there, and thus far, performance on the part of public servants who are supposed to be ensuring our safety and security has been unimpressive:

Smith [lead commissioner for the inquiry], a wheelchair user, has himself suffered abuse – with “Kripple” daubed over his walls in paint and wooden wedges hammered under his door to prevent it from being opened. “I did call the police, and the first five times it was like, ‘What do you want us to do about it?'” But I did finally get one officer prepared to do something about it and installed a surveillance system. It shows what can happen if the collective denial is challenged.”

Disabled people, says Smith, can literally become “too scared to leave home” because they are “harassed and told to ignore it by everyone else, including public bodies. It’s unacceptable”. (source, emphasis mine)

Smith’s story mirrors the Pilkington case: Repeated reports were made to law enforcement, and nothing was done. Until harassment, sexual assault, abuse, and violence against people with disabilities are treated like the serious crimes that they are, they are going to persist, and they are probably going to grow worse. This requires a fundamental rethinking of the way that disability hate crimes are handled. It requires better training for law enforcement, teachers, social workers, and other people on the front lines who are in a position to intervene.

It requires believing that people with disabilities are human beings.

“Bullying and harassment can all too often escalate into serious hate crimes against disabled people that we have all heard about.

“Harassment in any form is totally unacceptable. Everyone in society has the right to live life in safety and with security.

“For disabled people and for those people with long-term health conditions, safety and security is a right that can’t be taken for granted.” (source)

There is a fundamental lack of recognition in many regions of the world that hate crimes are a problem not just because they involve abuse of individuals, but because they are a reflection of social attitudes. Certain populations are viewed as acceptable targets for abuse by harassers, rapists, bullies, molesters because society has made its indifference to the safety, health, and wellbeing of these populations clear. Inquiries like the one planned by the EHRC are important, and will gather valuable information about patterns of abuse and harassment in the disabled community. They need to be backed up with a genuine movement towards change, a reform of social attitudes, a confrontation of the way that the actions and beliefs of society as a whole contribute to systemic oppression.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.