I recently received an email from somebody trying to make sense of 'hate crime' committed towards disability, and focused attention on a few of the stories concerning disability hate crime that had been reported in the UK press at some point, over the past two to three years. Many thousands of disabled people have their own experiences of negative behavior that have not been published, experiences that have not only severely dented their self-confidence but has lead them to seriously question how they are actually being perceived within the social world. The focus of this article is however, primarily on a few of those stories that have made the 'tabloids'.
I will certainly do my best to analyze these stories, and to put them into some kind of academic thinking as regards 'hate crime' committed against disability. As a researcher investigating negative behavior towards disability, I am sometimes seen as a contact point in which such a discussion can take place, and where incidents of 'hate' can be talked about objectively and put into some kind of social/cultural context if need be, in order to make sense of something which on the surface, seems quite senseless. So, here I go.
We first need to recap on what we know so far about disability hate crime within the UK, and judge whether attitudes/behavior towards disability are actually getting worse - as I have been arguing for quite some time now.
So, what do we know
Unfortunately, we actually know very little at the moment about the motivation that drives abuse, harassment and violence against perceived 'disability'. Very little research has been undertaken as regards why some individuals feel the need to express some kind of hostility towards those who are regarded by society as being 'disabled', a particularly odd phenomena itself, particularly within a society that likes to set itself up as tolerant, caring and civilized.
The fact that very little effort has been put into investigating the problem within the UK, may itself illuminate how the 'disabled' are viewed generally within society - chiefly as physiologically and/or psychologically 'defective', pitiful or sad individuals, that are either a burden on society, or just a general nuisance and inconvenience. So, who cares if one or two are 'slapped' about or indeed used as light entertainment for having a laugh if you happened to be bored, or just want to 'impress' your friends
Since I began my investigation in 2013, this impression of 'why should we be bothered', is pretty much one I been consistently picking up upon in response to my own research, and so much so, that I sometimes wonder what I've got myself into. Of course, most people say the right things about disability hate crime and show some level of horror or concern about the problem. However, no financial help is ever offered in order to try to advance my research, a lack of support that is consequently hindering my own efforts, and to such an extent, that I truly feel that some people would actually like to prevent my research being completed.
Certainly, if you compare the amount of research conducted into 'Hate Crime' committed against Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality or Women, then research into disability hate crime falls far short in terms of what is necessary for trying to understanding its underlying motivation. Research like mine is therefore vital, particularly as no one else is attempting to advance academic thinking in the same way. A literature review or summary of previous research into disability hate crime, while to be applauded for illuminating certain aspects of this insidious crime, highlight how far disability hate crime research is behind, compared to research that focuses on abuse and violence committed against Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality and Gender.
Apart from surveys and polls that count actual incidents or perceived attitudes to disability, the sum of academic knowledge about disability hate crime come primarily from the following small scale studies:
That is pretty much the sum total of academic thinking on disability hate crime as it stands within the UK at the moment, and although these studies may help cast some light on the problem, they often generate more questions than they may actually be able to answer.
Certainly, we may also be able to look across at the wider field of 'hate crime' regarding Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality or Gender, and see what they may bring to the discussion over disability. This is something I have myself done, and although 'hate crime' against certain social groups may contain unique features that mean that abuse and violence towards each social group should be analyzed separately, we may however, be able to pick out some commonalities in these displays of seemingly 'senseless' violence.
Studies of Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality and Gender, largely consider that 'hate crimes' are mainly opportunistic crimes in nature (rather than pre-planned) and where the emotion of 'hate' may actually have very little to do with violence and abuse (incidents that should more accurately be seen as being motivated by bias or prejudice). Some researchers (as mentioned above) are even moving away from the theme of bias and prejudice as a motivator of abuse and violence, placing instead a combination of opportunity, perceived vulnerability of the victim, boredom, peer pressure or status seeking, as amongst the possible triggers of violence.
However, these theories often leave unanswered the question of why somebody should actually 'want' to inflict abuse or violence upon another person (and in some cases death) even if they are bored, or indeed have the opportunity to commit violence. If the emotion of 'hate' is absent from 'hate crime', then it is actually harder to ignore the fact that the perpetrators of violence often seem to be very 'angry' over something connected to the victim. And perpetrators often act alone, not in a pack, and therefore without any kind of peer influence or pressure.
Certainly, some crimes have been argued to have some kind of 'defensive' quality to them, where perpetrators feel they are protecting their 'patch' or their community, a theory which I feel should not be completely overlooked. The danger of proposing theories of 'hate crime' based primarily upon 'vulnerability', 'boredom' or 'peer pressure', is that they may not actually get to the heart of the underlying motivation, but act merely as excuses for inexcusable behavior. Certainly, many people get bored or are subject to peer pressure, but don't react with violence, particularly towards people considered 'vulnerable'. Which suggests other factors may be at play.
Secondly, some researchers point to the way society is structured 'hierarchically', so that deep rooted and historical notions of biological, genetic or cultural 'difference' concerning Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality, Gender or Disability, influence modern day notions of superiority and inferiority. Abuse and violence is therefore argued to occur when traditional boundaries of privilege and dominance are perceived to have been eroded, contested, or are under threat. This idea therefore suggests that perpetrators of 'hate' may sometimes (mistakenly) be acting in defense of perceived social boundaries that have been in place for many years.
Alternatively, some researchers argue that increases of violence towards some social groups is a reaction to feelings of economic alienation. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that some abuse, harassment and violence may be committed towards those social groups that are perceived to be receiving some kind of (mythical) special treatment from the authorities or the 'system'. Most certainly, the media in the UK make out that our employment market is constantly being overrun with migrant workers, causing many British workers unable to find work, and that our welfare system within the UK is far too generous and open to widespread abuse by any number of 'unscrupulous' social groups (including the disabled and migrant 'benefit' tourists).
Both of these media assumptions are widely inaccurate, but may still have some kind of influence on the motivation of 'hate'. I recently came across a report that suggested that 'hate crime' towards Polish migrant workers within the UK were rapidly on the increase, where abuse and violence towards these workers were often accompanied by the words 'go home'. And as regards an UK benefit system 'abused' by the disabled or migrant social groups, analysis of government spending indicates that the majority of UK welfare spending is actually spent on pension provision and on UK families with children - not on benefit fraud (less than 1% of total welfare spending) nor on unemployment, disability benefits or supporting foreign workers.
However, despite the shenanigans of the British 'press' and a growing body of anecdotal evidence, in general empirical evidence suggests that abuse, violence and harassment is largely uninfluenced by economic downturns. That is not to deny that some incidents of abuse, harassment or violence committed towards Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality, Gender or Disability, cannot be caused by economic alienation, particularly if emotions are wildly stirred up by the popular press.
Whatever, most indicators suggest that 'hate crime' within the UK and committed against Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality, Gender and Disability is certainly not decreasing at present, but may in fact be increasing. However, whether this is down to deteriorating social relationships, or just because people are far more willing to report abuse, harassment and violence committed against them, is open to debate. For many years, victims of 'hate' and violence have often been reluctant to report incidents, either in fear of reprisals, embarrassment or over concerns that they won't be believed. That situation may be changing.
Negative behavior towards disability
It has been my argument for quite a number of years that negative behavior committed towards disability seemed not to be improving. Anecdotal evidence pointed to widespread abuse, harassment and violence that become almost the daily 'norm' for many disabled people, particularly those with a perceived mental impairment or mental illness. Surveys undertaken by many different British charities, have also consistently highlighted that a significant percentage of both physically disabled and mentally disabled people suffer abuse, violence and harassment because of their perceived disability, and again, often on a regular basis.
However, most of these studies are deftly swept away by the powers that be, often with the mantra that 'attitudes towards disability are improving ', an assumption based upon opinion polls and surveys of the attitudes of the abled-bodied - polls and surveys that are so badly thought out and flawed, that they may be considered to be fraudulent.
Arguably, these polls and surveys are also used by both the political establishment and the British media in order to get a political point across to the general public. Frighteningly, this 'mantra' is also churned out on a regular basis in relation to attitudes towards Race, Ethnicity, Religion and Sexuality.
So, what are the real 'facts' as regards disability? Certainly within the UK, abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disability has been woefully underestimated by 'official' statistics. We know this by comparing official records of 'hate crime', with figures taken from the annual crime survey of England and Wales. Thankfully, a number of organizations have worked together in order to motivate people to get help and not to suffer in silence, dramatically increasing the numbers of victims officially reporting incidents of abuse and violence against them.
Below are a number of cases of disability hate crime that have made the mainstream press in recent times, having been brought to my attention, and discussed over recent months with various people I know. They are pretty much presented at random, with no 'hidden' agenda attached to them, by me or anybody else. The only point I will make at this stage, is that these stories make the press, many thousands of incidents don't.
Case studies of disability hate crime
Case Study 1 - Police are hunting a man who carried out a "cowardly and shocking" attack on a 60-year-old man in a wheelchair. The attacker pushed the disabled man out of his wheelchair and assaulted him while he lay helpless. The assault happened on the rail footbridge on the Burbage side of Hinckley railway station, shortly before 2pm on Saturday, June 28.
Case Study 2 - A young woman woke from a severe epileptic fit to find two laughing men filming her ordeal on their mobile phones. The woman was walking her dog when a seizure came on. As she came round from the fit she realized two strangers were standing over her. Instead of offering her help, the men were laughing because the woman had bitten her tongue and was bleeding. One of the pair took a close-up shot on his mobile phone, coming within inches of her face before running away shouting "she fking p**d herself, ha." The woman suffered the fit while walking in the grounds of St Botolph's Priory in Colchester, Essex. Several passers-by failed to come to her aid and the men only left when her dog started growling. The males involved were about 20 years of age, and the incident is not being investigated by the police as no criminal offense had been committed.
Case Study 3 - A thief snatched a diamond engagement ring off the hand of a bride-to-be while she was having an epileptic fit. The Epilepsy sufferer had the seizure while walking in a park in Liverpool. As she lay on the ground defenseless, a man pretended to comfort her, but while holding her hand he slipped the white gold ring off her finger.
Case Study 4 - A man was kept as a slave in a garage by a Sheffield family, beaten on a daily basis and forced to scavenge for food. The man who has learning difficulties, was kept imprisoned in squalid conditions for more than five weeks by three members of the family. He had originally been paid to clean the family's ice-cream vans, but they refused to let him leave after asking him to sleep overnight in their garage to watch out for burglars. Police found the man in the back garden injured. The man was taken to hospital, and found to have a broken arm, a fractured rib and chin, extreme bruising to his back and around his kidney, and cuts, lumps and bruises to his head and legs. These beatings were captured on the family's own CCTV system. Despite the perpetrators being convicted for their crimes, the incident was not treated as disability hate crime, primarily as the man was described within court as 'vulnerable' but not disabled.
Case Study 5 - A judge sparked concern after refusing to treat a three-year campaign of cruelty as a disability hate crime, in which a disabled man was repeatedly beaten by relatives. Preston Crown Court where told that the man who has epilepsy and learning difficulties, was beaten with a stick, had a jump-lead clamped to his nose, and was head-butted and whipped. The man had come to Britain from Pakistan for an arranged marriage, but was rejected by his new wife and subjected to a three-year campaign of harassment and emotional abuse at the hands of four males. The court heard that one of the males described the man as mentally sick, another said he was a 'burden', while one of the men said he had a 'childish mind' and was referred to as 'the clown'. Although Lancashire police and the Crown Prosecution Service both treated the offenses against Hussain as disability hate crimes, the judge refused to increase their sentences under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, which allows for harsher sentences for hate crime. The judge told the court that he was 'satisfied that this is a case where your frustrated reactions to his poor behavior (as you saw it) overflowed and the poor behavior was as a result of his disability' .
Case study 6 - A disabled man who has twice been the victim of serious assaults has urged other hate crime victims to be brave and go to the police. The 56 year old man was tipped out of his wheelchair and kicked and spat on in separate terrifying attacks. The ex-pub boss did not report the incidents because he was so traumatized. Once a group of thugs tipped him out and ran off with his chair as he lay helpless on the pavement in Rutherglen, Glasgow. In another incident, he had his walking sticks kicked away by a group of men who then kicked and spat on him while out Christmas shopping. Workmen came to his rescue and urged him to contact police - but he refused and headed home. He said: 'Two young couples came up behind me and tipped me out of my chair a year ago. They were laughing and shouting abuse as they danced along the street with the chair. I staggered along the street and got it back again once they got fed up'. However, people are scared of reprisals because often their abusers aren't always strangers 'Disabled people can be victimized by their friends, or even family members.' This man now works for a third party reporting initiative, where helpers submit reports of hate crime to police on the victim's behalf.
Case Study 7 - Disabled activists linked the conviction of a man who called his disabled neighbor a 'benefit scrounger' to hostile stories and comments that have come from the media and the government. Magistrates used disability hate crime laws to increase the sentence imposed on a Mr David McGregor, who had waged a three-month hate campaign against his neighbor. South Tyneside magistrates heard that McGregor accused the neighbor of being a 'benefit scrounger', encouraged his own and other local children to hurl abuse at him, sprayed graffiti on his fence, and threw rocks at his window, much of it caught on CCTV that had been installed by the victim's family. The victim has a fluctuating condition, which means sometimes he can walk and sometimes he uses a wheelchair, but Mr McGregor claimed that the victim was exaggerating his impairment.
Case Study 8 - A women reported a disability hate crime after a man followed her home shouting, "F*****g DLA stick" at her repeatedly. He was referring to the crutch that helped her to walk, suggesting that she was faking disability to receive benefits, in this case disability living allowance (DLA).
Case Study 9 - Bijan Ebrahimi was savagely murdered then set on fire by a man after a false allegation of pedophilia was made against him. A report highlighted that the police were aware of previous incidents inflicted upon the victim, allegedly because of his perceived disability and his ethnicity, but took no or little action - inaction that may have escalated the hostility, intimidation and violence against the victim. The murder was not viewed as a 'hate crime' by the authorities.
Case Study 10 - A 23-year-old women, whose face has been disfigured since she was 14, was abused and attacked in a karaoke pub by another woman. 'Is your friend wearing a mask ' said the woman to a friend of the victim, and 'Your friend's face is disgusting.' The woman also repeatedly told the victim 'Take off your mask' before punching her in the face. The perpetrator was sentenced to eight months in prison.
I could go on to mention many other stories I've heard over the past few years, but I won't. Nor will I set out to make any kind of political statement or criticize anybody over the handling of the 'incident' behind each story - all I will do is to discuss them in terms of the possible motivation behind each. Admittedly, this isn't an easy task as there is very limited information for me to go on, although more information is probably contained within police and court transcripts of some of these cases, which would be most illuminating if I had access to them, unfortunately I don't. However, even with such limited information, each 'story' screams out a number of key themes and elements contained within 'hate' committed towards disability.
An analysis of 'hate'
The first thing to note is that not all of these 'incidents' are considered to be 'hate crimes' against disability. Certainly, British law is complex, and therefore while all these incidents seem most definitely motivated by some kind of bias and prejudice towards disability, some incidents are merely viewed as 'incidents' only and will not be viewed as criminal offenses under law. Incidents that are most definitely criminal acts and therefore punishable under law, are also not always considered to be 'hate crime', even though they may be motivated primarily by the victim's identity as a 'disabled' person. I feel this is a 'confusion' that needs to be addressed, as it muddies the water concerning 'hate crime' and sends out the wrong 'messages' about appropriate and inappropriate behavior towards disability (i.e., bias and prejudice towards disability may be 'wrong' sometimes, but also quite perfectly 'legal' at other times ).
The second point to make is that these ten cases vary quite widely, from abuse to criminal assault, theft, slavery, exploitation and murder. This is quite typical of 'hate crime' against disability, with many features unique to disability alone. Additionally, while 'hate crime' against Race, Ethnicity, Religion and Sexuality is usually taken to be purely opportunistic and perpetrated by complete strangers, this is not always the case with disability. As some of the above stories mention, some cases are quite clearly opportunistic acts committed by people unknown to the victim, but in other cases they are not - neither are they always one off incidents, but a series of incidents committed by the same people. This is something which may also be considered unique to disability.
The third point to make is that in most of the cases above, the perpetrator is primarily male, and often at the younger end of the spectrum. However, it is interesting to note that the one incident committed by a female (an attack on another female) was seemingly committed as being primarily over 'looks' and a lack of perceived 'prettiness'. Before I began my research in disability hate crime, I read quite a lot of literature on bullying and gender behavior, and there seems to be evidence that while both males and females are quite capable of bullying, harassment and violence, much of this may still fit specific gender patterns and roles. It is not unusual for females to criticize other females over their 'looks' and for not fitting accepted patterns of gender behavior or gender 'norms' - although this type of hostile behavior may be conducted much more subtlety than outlined in the case above. Additionally, it may not be that uncommon for males to also be hostile towards other males who are perceived to be lacking in either physical or psychologically 'strength', thereby violating the accepted gender norms of 'maleness' and 'male toughness'. Therefore, what is acceptable (or traditional) gender behavior, may need to be considered in any theory that is developed about the expression of 'hate' and violence towards disability.
Here are a number of other points that may be argued to be illuminated by the above cases.
NOTE: You can read Part 2 of this article here.
Other articles by Paul Dodenhoff in this series relating to disability hate crime include:
"Paul Dodenhoff is a PhD research student at Lancaster University, Law School UK. This essay/article is written in a personal capacity. However, anybody wishing to support the research in any way, have an input into the research or be able to sponsor the research, may contact the author via the following email address: email@example.com"