A crime arising from the hostility of the perpetrator towards the disability, or perceived disability, of the victim, or because of their perceived connection to disability. It is often viewed politically as a logical extreme of ableism (sometimes known in the UK by the disputed word "disablism"), carried through into criminal acts against the person. This phenomenon can take many forms, from verbal abuse and intimidatory behavior to vandalism, assault, or even murder. Disability hate crimes may be one-off incidents, or systematic abuse that may continue over periods of weeks, months or even years.
"Crimes of hatred and prejudice towards people considered to be 'different' in some way, whether that be race, religion, sexuality, disability or even politically, have been a sad fact of social history worldwide."
I am a PhD research student based at the Law School, Lancaster University, investigating disability hate crime within the UK, and developing a theoretical framework of the problem. Up to now this has never been attempted before, so once this process has been started, it will hopefully give some clues on how to tackle the problem.
At present, disability hate crime is an under researched academic area, despite media publicity of cases involving extreme violence or murder, and despite indications that the problem may be more widespread within the UK than official figures indicate. So, my project may be able to cast light on a number of key elements concerning the motivation behind abuse, harassment and violence against perceived disability.
Social Psychology and Inter-Group Conflict
The motivation behind social conflict between groups and communities has been the subject of academic study within the field of Psychology and Social Psychology for a number of years, generating many different theories and competing explanations.
Those focusing on individual attitudes or personality (Sumner 1906; Dollard et al. 1939; Adorno et al. 1950; Rokeach 1960) have mainly been drawn upon within the world of politics and the media, to argue that the motivation to commit acts of abuse, harassment and violence against certain groups, lies somewhere within the 'deviant' individual himself or herself and within their 'psychological' makeup.
However, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that discrimination, bias and prejudice may not be the sole result of individual 'psychopathy' or 'deviancy', but may be intentionally or unintentionally produced by society itself - through its most dominant social preferences or group practices, and its dominant social norms or social representations (Lippman 1922; Minard 1952; Davis 1969; Hogg & Vaughan 1995, Young 1990; Sheffield 1995; Perry 2001)
Therefore, abuse, harassment or violence towards perceived 'difference' should not be viewed as some kind of 'deviancy' from society's most dominant social norms and values, but are in fact, a 'normative' element of those dominant norms and values.
Arguably, it is such socio-cultural preferences, norms and representations that may actively construct 'difference' itself, and send out social messages about what is considered to be normal or deviant within society, encouraging not only a self-reflection and monitoring of one's own attitudes and behavior within the social world, but also the social monitoring of others. However, this reflective monitoring of others, may not only mark out some individuals as deviant when compared to society's most prevalent norms and values, but may also mark out individuals as being 'inferior' within that society.
In a 'civilized' society that may like to pride itself as 'tolerant' to difference and diversity, in reality any deviation from society's long established historical and socially preferred standards (including norms of culture, behavior, beliefs, able-bodied-ness, youth or beauty etc.) may only be tolerated on condition that such 'difference' is not in direct competition with nor intended to replace 'established' social practice, but stays firmly within historical and long-established social boundaries.
The history of 'hate crime'
Crimes of hatred and prejudice towards people considered to be 'different' in some way, whether that be race, religion, sexuality, disability or even politically, have been a sad fact of social history worldwide. However, the term 'hate crime' did not really enter western vocabulary until the late 1980s, becoming a way of describing and understanding racial violence that was occurring in both America and Britain at the time (particularly, the murder of Stephen Lawrence in London in 1993).
Certainly, racial violence within Britain and America wasn't a new thing and had a social history that went way before Stephen Lawrence's death. But undoubtedly, public attitudes and responses to violent incidents centered upon race or religion were quickly changing, so much so, that both politicians and national media needed to be seen to respond to that changing social mood, and hence 'coined' a term that not only seem to reflect the horror of such violence, but also the motivation behind it.
Therefore, it was assumed that 'hate crimes' were only perpetrated by some kind of 'sociopath', deliberately and habitually seeking out victims. However, although the expression is still widely used today (particularly by western media) 'hate crime' is now regarded as a misleading term by 'academia', and should more accurately be regarded as 'bias and prejudice' (Jacobs and Potter 1998).
But why? Certainly being on the wrong end of abuse, harassment and violence because of your skin color, beliefs, sexuality or just because you are perceived to look 'different', may certainly come across as 'hate' to the victim. And changing the definition from 'hate' to 'bias' or 'prejudice' certainly won't bring much comfort to a victim of 'hate crime', or make it disappear.
However, since the 1980's, a number of research studies indicate that 'hate crime' is not just the domain of the sociopath, but committed mainly by people who would otherwise be considered 'ordinary' or 'normal' (Felson 2002; Iganski et al. 2008). Additionally, 'hate crime' may be more of an opportunistic crime than a habitual one, although that is not to say that some acts are not repeat offenses, or that some perpetrators are not repeat offenders.
So what's the cause
In truth, nobody really knows and there is still much debate over its cause.
From the 1980's, the study of 'hate crime' has primarily been driven by researchers working within the field of Sociology and Criminology, generating a number of competing theories about 'hate crime' perpetrated against a widening number of social groups.
The most influential of these studies firmly situate 'hate crime' within its social context, arguing that the motivation lying behind 'hate crime' is much less about individual psychopathy, but originates instead from 'economic alienation' driven by society's sexist, racist and homophobic culture (Levin and McDevitt 1993) or lies within deep rooted cultural notions of 'social hierarchy' and 'difference' situated within society itself (Perry 2001).
Therefore, 'hate crime' may become a way in which traditionally dominant groups react to economic frustration, and/or mark out 'difference' and actively 'do difference', by asserting and re-asserting their historical rights of 'privilege' and 'dominance' over those perceived not just to be different, but inferior within society.
In many ways, abuse, harassment and violence may also play a large part in the construction and maintenance of racial, sexual and gender identity, particularly in young males (Messerschmidt 1993; Perry 2001). Since perpetrators of 'hate crime' tend to be male, gender development may certainly be argued to play some significant role within this process.
Pretty heavy going, but is this really an accurate reflection of 'hate crime' committed towards perceived disability? Once again, at the moment these theories are very much open to debate and contesting.
Interestingly, studies that have concentrated on building an explanatory and theoretical explanation of 'hate crime' have generally excluded 'disability' as part of any investigation, and concentrate mainly on incidents against race, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and gender. Arguably, this may mirror official 'hate crime' statistics in both the UK and the US, that consistently record 'disability hate crime' as having the least number of recorded incidents when compared to incidents committed against other social groups.
However, 'hate crimes' tend to be significantly underreported by victims, so the actual figures will be much higher than officially reported, and which may be particularly true for 'hate crime' committed against perceived disabilities.
Additionally, there has been very limited academic interest in disability hate crime itself, and at present there are no studies that can be said to parallel the work available on 'hate crime' committed against other social groups. Walk into any academic library and search for a book on 'hate crime' and you will be spoiled for choice, except that is if you are looking for something about 'hate crime' committed against perceived disability.
Arguably, there may also be an assumption within 'academia' that the research that already exists out there about 'hate crime' committed against race, religion, sexuality or ethnicity, can readily be transferred over to crimes committed against disabilities too. However, while there may be common features between 'hate crimes' committed against different social groups, there may also be unique features to each.
At the moment, the only thing we can really be sure that is common to all types of 'hate crime' categories, is that like all crime, 'hate crime' is much more likely to be committed by males, rather than females.
Disability Hate Crime
While there have been a number of small scale academic studies concerning 'disability hate crime' and various social surveys, these have often been limited in their scope and depth of analysis, and don't attempt to build a full and explanatory framework of the problem.
However, the disabled have suffered a long social history of oppression and marginalization within both the UK and the US, that there is a large body of work out there concerning disability issues, which may be helpful in highlighting bias and prejudice towards disability, and could inform the 'hate crime' debate.
For example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2011) argued that an 'ability/disability' system operates within western society, and one that actively produces or constructs disability and inequality by the ideological comparison and the differentiation of 'body's'. Put simply, an ideological comparison of 'bodies' not only marks out physical or psychological 'difference' between people, but also become authoritative works that are drawn upon to medically and socially monitor (and control) perceived physical or mental 'difference'.
Additionally, Tom Shakespeare (1994) argues the disabled have become `objectified' by cultural representations of disability in society, and have often been treated as 'objects' rather than people. As an example, Shakespeare cites the 'freak-shows' of yesteryear that portrayed disabled individuals as 'freaks of nature', 'animal like' or 'non-human'.
However, listen to the words or terminology used as abuse against victims of disability hate crime today, and they would not be dissimilar to the words or terminology vented against the disabled one hundred or two hundred years ago or more - words such as 'freak, 'monster', 'dog', 'animal', 'loony' or 'spastic'.
Therefore, we may have not actually moved on that far from those 'freak-shows' of disability that Tom Shakespeare talks about, because on a daily basis we may view TV programs, newspaper stories or magazine articles displaying many differing extremes of mental or physical ability/disability. However, such programs or stories even if they are 'dressed' up as 'human interest' stories, may not only be produced to provide information or 'facts' about illness, disability or disfigurement, but are arguably also for 'entertainment' purposes.
Therefore, 'hate crime' being about 'difference' and a form of 'people watching', would certainly fit well into any explanatory theory about disability hate crime. Indeed, what other social group can claim to have suffered from 'people watching' and/or 'boundary marking' more than the disabled
This is also a theme taken further by Quarmby (2013) to argue that disabled people have become targets of abuse, harassment and violence because they have been made political and media 'scapegoats' for the economic failings of British society. Certainly, negative political and/or media discourse surrounding disability benefit fraud may 'correlate' with an increase of abuse or violence committed against the disabled.
For example, since the start of the UK financial crisis in early 2008, disability hate crime had been reported to have almost doubled, and in 2011, The Glasgow Media Trust reported that the general public believed that between 50 and 70 per cent of those on disability benefits were frauds. It has also reported that there had been a huge increase in the use of words such as 'scrounger', 'cheat' and 'skiver' in tabloid papers stories linked to disability. A rather worrying scenario for anybody perceived to have a disability.
However, while some perpetrators of 'disability hate crime' may indeed be motivated by anger over media stories of benefit fraud, not all crimes against the disabled are committed by angry strangers waving copies of 'The Sun' or 'The Daily Express' above their heads, but by individuals who are often known to the victim and may know that victim well (such as relatives, friends, carers and neighbors).
Arguably, if abuse, harassment and violence are committed by 'insiders' to the victim, then the motivation behind disability hate crime may be much more complex than simply looking for its cause within government rhetoric or media discourse. Although, negative government discourse or negative media reporting about benefit fraud may certainly not help matters and may indeed act as a potential 'trigger' for some incidents of abuse, harassment or violence.
Pam Thomas (2011) acknowledged this dilemma and therefore attempted to split 'hate crime' committed against disability into 'hate crime' and 'mate crime', with 'mate crime' being more of a 'calculated' form of 'insider' crime that may also have an manipulative or exploitative element to it (i.e., for material gain).
However, while Thomas highlights that 'mate crime' may be one factor that may is unique to disability hate crime alone, the distinction that Thomas makes between 'hate crime' and 'mate crime' may cast little light on the underlying motivation of either 'insiders' or 'outsiders', as both groups are arguably subjected to the same socio-cultural norms and social representations within society. So, it may still be quite difficult to determine the 'true' underlying motive behind an incident, as some factors or variables may be acting in isolation from each other, or acting in some kind of combination with each other.
Disability and Social Contact
Arguably, programs or interventions aimed at decreasing discrimination, bias or prejudice towards groups such as the disabled, have often been based upon Allport's (1954) 'Intergroup contact hypothesis', that suggest that a lack of visibility within society or inexperience of stigmatized groups (those considered to be different in some way) promote ignorance, fear, hostility and exclusion. Therefore, social programs based upon increased contact with disability have often focused on increasing the 'visibility' of the disabled and 'integrating' the disabled within society.
However, isn't it a case that we may have over simplified the problem? Social programs based on social contact with disability may have had the best of intentions, but when hearing about complaints of 'alleged' discrimination over employment or housing, or hearing stories about actual abuse and violence committed against disabled people, it seems that increased contact with disability does not always promote equality or inclusion by itself (and may even create opportunities for abuse, harassment and violence).
For example, Chakraborti and Garland (2012) suggested that it may not only be 'difference' that automatically makes an individuals a target for 'hate crime', but when that victim's identity intersects with other factors such as their perceived isolation or vulnerability (marking some people out as an 'easy' target). Certainly, many cases of 'hate crime' may be presented as opportunistic crimes, committed out of 'boredom' or for just 'having a laugh', and directed at a perceived 'easy' and 'vulnerable' target.
However, a focus on vulnerability or opportunism as a cause of 'hate crime' alone, fails to account for why some individuals 'feel' they need a target to attack in the first place, even if it is 'just having a laugh'.
Many incidents of abuse, harassment and violence are now often argued to be 'mindless' acts motivated by boredom or thrill seeking. But bearing in mind that it is not always children who commit such acts of discrimination, abuse and violence against the disabled but grown adults, isn't this an indication that 'just having a laugh' may actually be a very weak 'excuse' for something much 'darker' going on within the workings of society
Therefore, rather than thinking about how the disabled can be 'integrated' better within society, shouldn't we really now be thinking about how we can 'integrate' society within the world of disability
Disability and social sanction
Allport (1954) suggested that for any positive effects of intergroup contact to occur, four key conditions have to be met:
Arguably, increased contact with perceived disability may not decrease discriminatory behavior or 'hate crime' against 'difference', if any of these four key conditions for intergroup contact are violated. Is it possible therefore, that the four key conditions outlined by Allport above, may still not be in place
For example, in what situations can a disabled person ever be secure in the knowledge that they have the status of an 'equal' within society? So much so, that people with disabilities sometimes try to camouflage their disability, or avoid certain situations where that disability will become more publicly noticeable.
Hardly a sign of 'equality', but arguably an indication of society's most dominant and prevalent norms or social preferences, values and social representations that may often conspire against the disabled to eliminate any real chance of 'equal' status. If the disabled are indeed subjected to an ideological 'ability/disability' system as outlined by Garland-Thomson (2011), then the disabled will always be regarded by some within society as deviating from society's preferred health or socio-cultural norms in some way.
In a society that places so much emphasis on work ethic, self-responsibility, physical ability and strength, mental ability and strength, health, wealth accumulation, being 'slim' or having beauty ('good looks') - then any 'deviation' from those preferred 'ideological' norms or social preferences may mark out an individual not only as being different within society, but also inferior within that society.
While not wanting to swing the 'hate crime' debate back towards the 'individual' by a focus on 'individual' attitudes or 'individual' psychopathy, there are two questions as a researcher I need to ask:
Influential studies concerning 'hate crime' directed towards race, gender or sexuality, argue that 'hate' incidents are more than just a personal expression of individual bigotry, but may be motivated by bias and prejudice that is so deeply and historically embedded within the institutional structures of society itself, and within its procedural social, cultural norms and social representations, that it continues to reproduce entitlement and discrimination based upon a social hierarchy of 'difference'.
While I agree with the above analysis, and it may indeed to be backed up by the work of Allport (1954), it fails to acknowledge that if everybody is exposed to the same socio-cultural norms and representations as each other, then why do individuals react to them so differently? However, if individuals differ from each other in terms of their intellectual ability and life experiences, or may interpret and/or react to social information differently - then these 'individual' characteristics will also need to be incorporated into any analysis and theory of disability hate crime.
Arguably, in order to 'fit' the individual back into the analysis of 'hate crime', we may need to access if there are any 'psychological' benefits for the perpetrator committing acts of abuse, harassment and violence against perceived disability. So, while it may be possible to situate disability 'hate crime' within a similar social and structural context as outlined by Perry (2001), the aim of my study is to also include an 'individual' element within the analysis, that may help to illuminate the 'psychological' factors that may be missing from previous analyses of 'hate crime'.
In building a theoretical approach to disability hate crime, I am using Giddens (1984) 'Structuration Theory' as its principle guiding methodology. For Giddens, all individuals develop a framework of 'ontological security' (the sense of trust or confidence we may have in the reliability of other people) based upon the routines of daily life, which duly become 'coping mechanisms' in order to negotiate anxiety about life and the social world (Giddens 1991).
These coping strategies are intimately linked to intergroup organization and the social practices and norms that are reproduced across time and space. Therefore, the sense of trust or confidence we have in the reliability (or unreliability) of other individuals, may not only be influenced by society's most dominant ideological discourses and representations, but also influence how we perceive and react to other individuals. In short, this is a two way process.
My research therefore focuses on the resources, rituals, norms and social practices that individuals draw upon in the maintenance of individual ontological security (and identity) and how 'hate crimes' committed against the disabled may be intentionally or unintentionally legitimated by society, by it's often contradictory norms and dominant social practices.
Structuration theory when previously applied to bullying or sociopathic behavior in business organizations have illuminated organizational culture, identity ambiguity and organizational change as motivating factors in the cause of sociopathic behavior (Pech and Slade 2007).
Therefore, the core characteristics of 'structuration theory' may be best placed to illuminate the interpretative schemes, group rituals or social norms that individuals may draw upon in order to shape their understanding of the social world, and how these may also be drawn upon to justify the crimes they may commit. A focus on 'ontological security' in an analysis of disability hate crime, may help bridge the academic gap between 'individual' psychological thought processes and socio-cultural influences inherent within society itself.
It is hoped that my research will move academic thinking on disability hate crime forward, by uncovering its underlying social and its psychological causes.
Paul Dodenhoff is a PhD research student in the Lancaster University Law School, UK. This essay/article is written in a personal capacity. However, anybody wishing to support the research in any way may contact the author via the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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