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Abuse, Harassment & Violence Towards Disability - Prejudice or Vulnerability

  • Published: 2015-05-28 (Rev. 2015-07-18) - Contact: Paul Dodenhoff at p.dodenhoff@lancaster.ac.uk
  • Synopsis: There are arguably a number of reasons why disability hate crime has largely been ignored.

Main Document

"While many disabled people complain that the able-bodied often only see their disability and no other aspects of their identity, there is a commonly held view within British society that attitudes towards the disabled have improved considerably over the years."

I have been concerned for quite some time about an academic shift within the UK, a shift from considering 'bias and prejudice' as a motivator of abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated towards the disabled, to the concept of 'vulnerability' as its primary motivator. At present, the concept of 'bias and prejudice' motivated by the identity characteristic of disability is arguably being side-lined and replaced with the concept of 'vulnerability'. However, it's a shift that perhaps also falls into line with the way the British legal system generally perceives abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated towards the disabled.

At present there is very little research conducted on the actual motivation underlying abuse, harassment and violence committed towards the disabled, especially when compared to research conducted towards Race, Ethnicity, Religion and Sexuality. A mountain of research that points towards factors such as the identity of the victim (identity based upon Race, Ethnicity, Religion or Sexuality) intersecting with other possible factors, such as economic alienation and frustration, boredom, thrill seeking or a perceived intrusion into the community.

Ignoring disability hate crime

There are arguably a number of reasons why disability hate crime has largely been ignored. Firstly, hate crime committed towards disability within the UK has always been reported to be low, compared to crimes committed towards other social groups. For example, in 2013/14 there were 44,480 hate crimes recorded by the police, an increase of five per cent compared with 2012/13. Of which;

  • 37,484 (84%) were race hate crimes
  • 4,622 (10%) were sexual orientation hate crimes
  • 2,273 (5%) were religion hate crimes
  • 1,985 (4%) were disability hate crimes
  • 555 (1%) were transgender hate crimes.

( Government Home Office)

However, official figures are considered to be much lower than the actual number of hate crimes taking place within society year on year, as victims may not always report abuse, harassment and violence committed against them to the police. For example, The Crime survey for England and Wales (CSEW), a survey which tries to gauge the number of crimes that go unreported, estimate that about 278,000 hate crimes actually take place a year, compared to the 44,000 or so crimes officially reported. Disability hate crime in particular is considered to be vastly underestimated. For example, in 2013 The Crime and Disabled People report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), found there were about 72,000 incidents of disability hate crime every year from 2007-08 to 2011-12 in England and Wales. Many disability groups and charities believe this figure to be even higher.

Secondly, abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disability may not be considered as important a social problem as abuse, harassment and violence committed towards other social groups, particularly crime committed towards Race, Religion and Sexuality. Certainly, if official statistics indicate that only 4% of hate crimes are committed towards disability, it may downplay the problem to the wider world, and therefore not attract potential funding. However, if EHRC estimates are correct, then incidents of disability hate crime will make up more than 20% of all hate crimes, indicating that hostility towards the disabled is much more prevalent than many would like to believe or admit.

Finally, at present, crime motivated by Race and Religion is treated quite differently under Britain's legal system than crimes motivated by disability. British law talks about two types of hate crime, 'Aggravated offenses' (a crime that is made worse because of hostility about who the victim is) and 'Stirring up hatred' . Despite the perception that all social groups are born equal and treated equally under British law, neither of these two offenses actually apply to disability. Consequently, there is no law that automatically considers that hostility towards disability to be a primary motivator of crime, a motivator that therefore makes that crime worse than conventional crime.

What this means is that if an individual commits a crime and is hostile to the victim because of the victim's race or religion, they get will receive a tougher custodial punishment, without question. However, if an individual commits a crime and is hostile to the victim because of disability, they may get a tougher sentence depending on the view of the judge presiding over the case, and the skill of those prosecuting or defending the perpetrator of the crime. Therefore, 'enhanced' sentences such as these are not always applied to cases involving abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disability, even when hostility to disability is argued to be present. That's if the case makes it to court at all.

Low conviction rates and disability hate crime

Of the 2,000 cases of disability hate crime that get reported to the police each year, less than half go to court. Home Office statistics reported in 2012-13 that out of the 810 incidents that did make it to court, there was only 349 convictions. Only 7 of those cases actually acknowledged hostility towards disability as the motivating factor for the crime and duly received an enhanced sentence.

There may be many possible explanations why so few cases make it to court, and why so few deliver a conviction. Firstly, despite the huge number of laws currently on Britain's statute books, laws that cover virtually any misdemeanor you could possibly imagine, arguably some cases of abuse, violence and harassment committed against the disabled are often perceived as non-criminal 'anti-social' incidents rather than criminal offenses they may be. Secondly, disabled people, particularly those perceived to have a mental impairment, are often seen by the police, the crown prosecution services and the courts as not being 'reliable' witnesses. Criminal investigations of 'hate' towards the disabled may be perceived as too difficult to investigate, arguably requiring a greater burden of proof to be confident of conviction, therefore time consuming and a drain on already limited resources. Thirdly, the authorities may be much keener to treat abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated towards Race and Religion more seriously, as such violence may be perceived as a bigger threat to social order. Britain has had its fair share of social problems concerning Race and Religion in the past, but at no time have disabled people been seen to riot and rampage through the streets of Britain in protest at violence perceived to be committed against them. Finally, any bias and prejudice, negative social attitudes, negative social stereotypes and mistaken beliefs that surround disability within society may also manifest itself within our legal system. Disabled people may not be treated equally under British law simply because some people believe that they should not be.

Whatever the reason, while Britain's legal system acknowledges that hostility towards the disabled is a possibility, British Courts rarely recognize that hostility towards the disabled actually occurs, and often focus on the disabled persons 'vulnerability' for being an 'easy' target instead.

What is hate crime

Academics primarily define hate crime as abuse, harassment and violence motivated by 'bias and prejudice' towards the victim's identity or social membership group. Similarly, UK law considers hate crime as any 'criminal offense' which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated primarily by hostility or prejudice based on a personal characteristic of some kind. Thereby, both academia and the law generally treat 'hate crimes' as a manifestation of hostility generated towards an identity characteristic of the victim, and primarily involving Race, Religion, Sexuality, Disability and Transgender status.

However, under British law some identity characteristics are automatically given greater importance and greater protection than others. A situation that is beginning to be mirrored by discussions within academia, discussions that completely remove identity from the discussion of disability hate crime, in order to focus on the 'vulnerability' of the victim instead. Particularly when that vulnerability intersects with other factors such as the opportunity to commit the crime, boredom or thrill seeking.

While many disabled people complain that the able-bodied often only see their disability and no other aspects of their identity, there is a commonly held view within British society that attitudes towards the disabled have improved considerably over the years. Certainly, the way disabled people are treated within society is generally better than it was, but we may only be at the beginning of that journey, not near its end. However, the general perception is that the disabled are much more equal now within society, which may arguably also affect the way the legal system treats disability, and the way academia would like to view the motivation of any abuse or violence. Arguably, if widespread hostility towards the disabled is not considered to exist, it is therefore unlikely to be considered as a motivating factor behind any abuse, harassment and violence that the disabled may face.

Disability and inequality

Research indicates that at the very least, the abled-bodied are still generally uncomfortable around disability, where many of the abled-bodied actively avoid contact with the disabled whenever possible. Additionally, discrimination still takes place for employment, the disabled are still generally marginalized within society and made to feel 'invisible', and many disabled people complain that they have been the victims of abuse, harassment and violence, both as a child and as an adult.

The disabled are therefore not always treated equally within society nor under its laws, and by a long way. For example, in a country that sets itself out to be a paragon of human rights and equality, while it is illegal under British law to stir up hostility towards race, religion or sexual orientation, bizarrely, it is not illegal under British law to stir up hatred towards disability. How did this occur? Did somebody just happen to forget to include disabled people in this piece of legislation

Certainly, somebody, somewhere may feel that stirring up hatred towards Race, Religion and Sexuality to be a distinct possibility within modern British society, and consequently, these social groups need protecting. I would certainly not argue with that logic at all, as we only have to look at the example of Nazi Germany before and during World War II to see the consequences of what stirring up hatred and scapegoating people for the ills of society can do. Why take that chance again

But do the disabled not require similar protection? Many disabled people genuinely believe that they have been targeted by both negative political and media rhetoric over recent years for being potential benefit frauds and cheats, rhetoric that some disabled people argue has also motivated acts of public abuse, harassment and violence against them. Below is a transcript from The Guardian, 14 August 2012:

"Emma Round, 28. In 2009, nerves in Round's abdominal cavity became badly damaged, making walking extremely painful. Unable to leave the house without help, she became effectively trapped for nine months until a doctor decided to give her a wheelchair. The change revolutionized her independence, but also made her a target of abuse. Sitting outside a local shop not long after getting her wheelchair, she was approached by a well-dressed stranger. "He lent over, looked me in the eye and said, 'It's a good scam. Someone your age shouldn't be in a wheelchair ... You're just doing it for the benefits, aren't you? Scum.' Then he walked off. I just sat there crying," Round says. That incident was not a one off. "Since then I've been called lazy frequently and had people grab my wheelchair and tell me to get out and walk. I've been called a scrounger, a sponger, a faker and other words you wouldn't be able to put in print."

Additionally, disabled people still have their very existence questioned in public discussions over abortion, genetic manipulation and eugenics. If we look back again to Nazi Germany, many disabled people were sent to the gas chambers or experimented upon just because of their identity as a disabled person. Therefore, legislation that automatically protects Race, Religion and Sexuality from hostility, 'hate speech' or 'stirring up hatred', should also include disability. Why should it be an offense to stir up hatred towards Race, Religion or Sexuality and not Disability? Again, why take the risk

Such inconsistencies in British legislation cannot be simply put down to political incompetence or the cogs of law turning incredibly slowly, but may also demonstrate long established social attitudes held about the disabled, and attitudes that may also go some way in defining what disability is. Consequently, a political and legal system may not want to focus on bias and prejudice towards the disabled as being a primary motivator of abuse and violence, as it may be more convenient for them not to do so.

For example, The UK's Law Commission had a recent chance to change British legislation in order to offer disabled people the same protection under law that other social groups have at present. However, the consultation exercise concluded in 2014 that any changes to the current two tiered approach (and one argued by many as failing to protect disabled people) was deemed unnecessary, despite initial indications that these laws would be amended to make them fairer. No adequate explanation has been offered.

Arguably, the explanation can be partly found in The Law Commissions Consultation Paper No 213 released in 2013, where the Law Commission's Job was outlined as making sure British laws are 'fair ', 'up to date ', 'simple ' and 'do not cost too much '. That last part may actually be the most illuminating and give us the explanation we seek. Creating law is not just about being fair, but about cost. Hate crimes attract longer prison sentences than conventional crime and therefore cost more, putting extra strain on our criminal justice system and prisons. Prisons that are already full to the brim.

If disability hate crime does run at 70,000 cases or more per year, and the majority of those victims did actually report them to the police, our criminal system would not be able to cope under the strain. It is hard to imagine that the Law Commission did not consider that possibility. With the advent of third party reporting across the UK, some regions have already recorded a massive increase in disability hate crime being reported to the police, and in some cases by 200%. It would certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons within the legal world if 'stirring up hatred' against the disabled was also thrown into the mix.

Disability hate crime and identity

But we should be careful not to view an inability to protect the disabled from abuse and violence as just being about the numbers or cost. Hate laws based upon hostility towards identity characteristics may not be that easy to unravel, particularly as each of us have many identity characteristics that cut across each other. Additionally, in British society people arguably want to believe that the UK is a tolerant nation and a shining beacon of democracy and equality within the world, a model that the rest of the world should follow. Very few British citizens would be comfortable with the notion that bias, prejudice or hostility towards the disabled to be so established and so deep-rooted within British society, that some individuals actively seek to abuse and harass them, sometimes for material gain and often just for fun. Therefore, people may want not to believe that hostility towards disability exists, at least not to any real degree, and arguably many of those people may include our judges.

Statistics from the CPS released in 2014 highlight that out of the 11,818 racially aggravated cases prosecuted last year, 85.2% resulted in convictions. Out of the 550 cases prosecuted that involved religiously aggravated hostility, 84.2% resulted in a conviction. As stated above, 2012-13 statistics show that there was only 349 convictions (43%) out of the 810 cases that actually made it to court under the banner of disability hate crime, with only 7 of those cases acknowledging hostility towards disability as a motivating factor for the crime. Therefore, during this period, less than 1% of disability hate crime cases that actually made it to court was recognized as disability hate crime under law , and thereby attracted enhanced sentencing.

However, if we automatically believe that the identity characteristics of Race, Religion or Sexuality can motivate some people to commit abuse and violence, why do we not believe that other identity characteristics can also similarly motivate abuse and violence? Surely we are just picking and choosing the social groups we want to protect and those we do not, and for whatever reasons that may suit our own, personal beliefs.

The case of Alan Barnes - Mugging or Hate Crime

Alan Barnes, a 67 year old man with a number of physical disabilities was attacked early this year, knocked to the ground outside his home in Gateshead and broke his collar bone. While the perpetrator admitted the attack as an assault and attempted robbery, prosecutors initially argued that the attack was actually a hate crime - that Mr Barnes was deliberately targeted because of his disability. Here is an extract taken from Chronicle-Live 12/03/2015:

' Nick Dry, prosecuting, said the mugger struck in an area of sheltered accommodation for disabled and elderly people, he made a partial admission to police that he knew of Mr Barnes prior to the attack, and that, in Mr Barnes's opinion, he was attacked due to his disability. Mr Dry said if it was agreed that Gatiss specifically targeted Mr Barnes "it can be inferred there is a general hostility towards people of disability". That could mean Gatiss was guilty of a disability hate crime, which would aggravate the assault with intent to rob charge that he admitted last month. Mr Dry added: "It is pure inference that is sought by the crown." Judge Paul Sloan QC felt the claim of a general hostility towards disabled people was "hollow", and that the aggravating circumstances would be factored into the sentencing exercise anyway.'

As we can gather from the extract, the Judge presiding over the case did not particularly hold the view that hostility towards the disabled generally exists within society. By contrast, as the case went on the 'vulnerability' of Mr Barnes quickly became the main focus of attention, as well as the individual deviancy of the perpetrator.

However, if a Judge automatically presumes that hostility towards the disabled within society does not really exist, what chance do disabled people have of obtaining justice in cases of abuse, harassment and violence? It is quite certain that in a racial or religious hate crime, it would be extremely unlikely for any judge to publicly state that hostility towards Race or Religion is unlikely to exist within society.

So, does disability hate crime not exist? Below is an extract again from The Guardian 14 August 2012:

"It was karaoke night at the Weaver's Arms when Chantelle Richardson was attacked by a stranger because of her disability. The 23-year-old, whose face has been disfigured since she was 14, had already left one pub that night after comments about her condition. Now drinking with mates at her local in Oldham, it happened again.

"Is your friend wearing a mask" said the woman who'd just stopped singing as one of Richardson's pals approached the mike. "Your friend's face is disgusting." The woman repeatedly told Richardson: "Take off your mask," before punching her in the face. The blow was so strong it could have been fatal and left Richardson hospitalized for weeks. For months, she was depressed and afraid to go out in public. Her attacker, brought to court in March last year, was sentenced to eight months in prison."

Clearly, disabled people do suffer crime because of their identity, and crime that is not always motivated to some extent by any kind of 'vulnerability'. At present, we have a two tired legal system that not only treats disability differently than Race or Religion, but seems quite confused about whether disability hate crime actually exists at all. It's a confusion that signals itself in a system that leaves the underlying motivation of the crime to the whims and beliefs of the judges presiding over the case.

In the UK we have had a large number of high profile cases involving disability, were the system of enhanced sentencing has not been applied, even in the case of murder. One of the problems is that although hate crime is often reported to the police as hate crime, recognized by the CPS as hate crime and goes to court as hate crime, that isn't always enough for judges to view those cases as 'hate crime', but instead become conventional crime motivated solely by the vulnerability of the victim.

The danger of vulnerability

The danger of shifting focus to vulnerability, is that is helps to depoliticize the crime by removing any cultural bias and prejudice that may circulate around identity characteristics or group membership characteristics such as disability. It arguably also becomes the easy option to view a crime as being about the deviancy of the perpetrator and the vulnerability of the victim, rather than focusing on how hostility and prejudice may be motivated by mistaken beliefs, negative attitudes, social representations and stereotypes surrounding disability. Beliefs and attitudes that become almost normative within society.

Therefore, with a shift to vulnerability, not only do the disabled suffer abuse and harassment solely because of their vulnerability, but the elderly also become attacked because of their vulnerability and not because of negative social attitudes towards old age and retirement. Young girls get sexuality exploited because of their vulnerability and not because of any underlying sexism within society and male attitudes towards women. And the homeless suffer abuse and violence due to their vulnerability, and not because of social attitudes towards mental illness, alcoholism, begging and perceived laziness.

Rather than focusing on society as it actually exists, and supplying a totally independent and objective analysis, social scientists may be falling into the trap of trying to fit an analysis of disability hate crime into the prevailing political and legal thinking around the topic. However, this line of approach is not only disheartening, but also ignores any socio-cultural motivator of abuse, harassment and violence towards the disabled, and will not solve the problem. If we do not solve the problem of disability hate crime, many people will carry on to suffer abuse and violence through no fault of their own.

Related:

  1. The Cause of Disability Hate Crime within the UK - Paul Dodenhoff - (2014-03-04)
    https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/discrimination/cause.php
  2. Challenging 'Hate' Within the UK - The Disability Hate Crime Network - Paul Dodenhoff - (2014-11-04)
    https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/discrimination/dhcn.php
  3. The Complexity of Hate - Disability Hate Crime within the UK - Paul Dodenhoff - (2014-08-12)
    https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/discrimination/complexity.php









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