Last year Home Office figures showed that more than 52,000 hate crime offences were reported in England and Wales in 2014 – 15, an 18% increase on the previous year. The statistics also revealed that disability hate crime had risen by 25%, yet less than 4% had been reported.
This forces the question of why disabled people do not report such incidents? What steps need to be taken to, alongside combatting the hate crime itself, actually ensure people are confident they can report cases and that offenders will be prosecuted.
Having previously worked at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and having been involved in a disability hate crime inquiry in 2010, I have discovered the ‘dark’ side of living with disability by seeing cases that ranged from emotional abuse to rape and even murder.
Up until then I had never actually recognised the term ‘disability hate crime’ for two main reasons. Firstly, I was subjected to hearing comments and so called ‘banter’ about my disability from a young age and so, although they hurt and made me vulnerable, I somehow saw it as the ‘norm.’ Adults would casually tell me: “Oh ignore them” or “they are just being silly.” I therefore subconsciously accepted these words of torture as part of life.
Secondly, acknowledging that you are being targeted for your physical ability, and to associate it with hatred, is a chilling concept. It is one thing to have words of abuse or taunts hurled at you, which you could automatically attribute to people being mean or silly, but to identify it as disability hate crime transforms it from a random encounter to a more personal one.
To accept that some people will target you and hate you for being disabled is a frightening thought. A thought that I believe many of us will try to escape from, which is maybe why it often goes unreported.
I guess it is partly psychological, a way to protect yourself. Talking about it could be seen as kind of self-fulfilling prophecy – if you believe in the term ‘disability hate crime,’ then it becomes more real and something to fear. If you experience abuse on a certain bus route, then you might automatically just take a different route and attribute the incident to the location. But when recognising it as a disability hate crime, you then have the fear of it being about you.
A disabled friend of mine has been mugged twice on her way home. Both times, someone had grabbed her bag and tipped her wheelchair so that she fell on the ground, leaving her screaming for help until local residents came to her aid.
She reported both of the mugging incidents as mere muggings. Yet when she asked the police, GP and social worker as to why anyone would mug her, especially as she was not carrying anything particularly valuable, the reply was: “People assume that the disabled have drugs, such as strong painkillers or even morphine.” Surely this is a direct admission by all that she was targeted specifically because of her disability, making it a disability hate crime, but not being treated as such?
A few years later the same friend had her wheelchair stolen, which she again reported to the police. They eventually found the wheelchair and arrested the culprit. But the police suggested to my friend that it would be best to accept his apology rather than press charges. Their reason was that as a minor offence he would only get a caution and as he lives locally he may then target her further. However, by meeting and him apologising there is a big chance he would learn from his mistake.
In theory it is a positive approach. But is that the kind of advice the police should give? That out of fear of future attacks you don’t report it? Shouldn’t the culprit face the consequences of his crime regardless?
There needs to be many reforms before disability hate crime can be eradicated, but to start with the ease and accessibility of reporting it needs to be made easier. Still to this day women often don’t report sexual abuse for fear of stigma, or the fact that they are led to believe they are somehow to blame for what happened to them. I think in a similar manner people living with a disability fail to recognise that they are being victimised and for many the taunts and verbal abuse is just dismissed as part of being disabled.
My experience of bullying was confined to the school environment, but for my friend it has been a life long foe. So what steps do we need to take? I personally believe that education is the key to teaching children about disability and acceptance from all. Similarly people living with disability must be encouraged to report hate crime and, more importantly, be taught to recognise the incidents as disability hate crime.
Disabled people should not have to brush it aside as part of life and suffer in silence.
By Raya Al-Jadir
Raya Al-Jadir is a member of Muscular Dystrophy UK’s Trailblazers, a network of young disabled campaigners. In 2012, Trailblazers published the report Under Investigation, which looked at young disabled people’s experiences of disability hate crime.