Nearly 40% of disabled people we surveyed experienced hate crime online

We’ve been working with disability charity Leonard Cheshire to help highlight the issue with disability hate crime online. Our survey of 250 disabled people uncovered that 37% have experienced it.

The most common way in which people were targetted was through Facebook or its messenger app – 70% experienced it there. Other forms included:

  • email (22%)
  • Twitter (20%)
  • other forms of social media (20%).

For 35% of those who had a disability hate crime committed against them online, it came from a stranger whose name they could see, whilst 34% suffered it from someone who was anonymous.

Janine Howard, who experienced online disability hate crime and was supported by Leonard Cheshire’s hate crime advocacy services said:

“People I don’t know take my photograph when I am out and about, they post it on social media for others to comment on.

The comments are nasty, hurtful and leave me feeling frightened and angry. There is no escaping this online abuse if I want to use social media. It’s horrible to know that my family might see this abuse online.”

Rise in disability hate crime online

To delve deeper into the issue, Leonard Cheshire made Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all police forces across England and Wales. It found a staggering 33% increase in recorded online hate crime against disabled people between 2016/17 and 2017/18.

Almost three quarters (32) of all 43 forces responded, recording a total of 313 disability hate crimes in 2017-18, compared to 235 offences the previous year. Although this provides a broad picture of how common these crimes are, it doesn’t cover everything.

The charity also discovered that Norfolk and Suffolk saw the biggest increases in recorded crimes. Reported incidents were up from four to 23 and two to 20 respectively for those police forces between 2016/17 and 2017/18.

Surrey also saw a significant rise, with records up from 8 to 25. Though Kent did not report such a large increase, it had the most crimes reported in 2017/18, with 30 on record.

Sad woman looking at her mobile phone

Reporting disability hate crime

Only 15% of people in our survey reported the online hate crime they experienced to the police. Another 15% alerted the social media provider of the offence and 14% a moderator of the platform they were using. 

Worryingly, 36% didn’t report the disability hate crime they experienced to anyone.

Leonard Cheshire’s chief executive, Neil Heslop, said: “Police are increasingly recording online offences, but we know it remains an underreported area and that disabled people may have reservations about speaking out. We suspect many crimes remain under the radar, with survivors never getting support and perpetrators facing no consequences.”

From April 2015, it became mandatory for forces to apply an ‘online flag’ to provide a national and local picture of the extent to which the internet and digital communications technology are being used to commit crimes.

The flag should be used to identify cases where it is believed that an offence was committed, in full or in part, through a computer, computer network or another computer-enabled device.

Whether an offence was in part or totally committed online may require more investigative resource than some other flags. It is thought that the use of the online flag is prone to a higher degree of undercounting that other flags.

The law around disability hate crime

Hand on a computer keyboard

Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides the legal framework for prosecuting disability hate crime. It gives courts the power to treat hostility towards disability as an aggravating factor, meaning that the sentence can be increased if someone is prosecuted.

Unlike race and religion, there are no specific disability-related criminal offences. There is only that potential increase in sentencing.

However, it is more likely that a suspect will be prosecuted for an offence if it is motivated by prejudice against the victim’s actual or presumed disability. It’s also the case if the suspect targeted or exploited the victim based on their actual or presumed disability.

Change for disability hate crime victims

Leonard Cheshire is now calling for global media companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, to take online disability hate crime more seriously and protect all users.

It is backing MP’s recommendations for Government and social media companies to directly consult disabled people on digital strategy and hate crime law. The hope is that this will ensure the internet becomes a less threatening and more inclusive place for everybody.

The charity is hoping its latest findings will cause everyone to take online hate crime more seriously, given the consequences it has on survivors. As one survey respondent from the UK told Leonard Cheshire, anonymously:

“The online abuse affected my mental and emotional health, I was unable to sleep properly for months. Experiences like this make me worried for younger people with disabilities who may be more susceptible.”

By Disability Horizons

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