Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.
Do you ever get the feeling of Deja vu? I do all the time, particularly when researching abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated against perceived physical or mental disability. Where day after day, you can hear about the same problems facing people, the same daily experiences, the same underreporting of incidents, the same lack of investment in research and ultimately the same lack of political will in getting to grips with 'hate crime' within in UK.
I became interested in disability hate crime around 2011, and over the past three years I have seen very little improvement in how we deal with the problem within the UK. I have also seen no effort put into understanding why these things happen, apart from my own research. We still don't even know the full scale of the problem as most crimes go unreported, and we depend upon little more than guess work in determining the true numbers. And when crimes do get reported, the disabled are still often failed by the police in dealing with the problem, and by the courts by not delivering the appropriate sentencing.
However, ultimately it is the politicians who are failing our disabled, through the laws they create, and the way they have cut police numbers and budgets in recent times, reducing the police's ability to tackle crime. Politicians who fail the disabled by portraying them all as dependent and vulnerable, or even more cynically, as workshy and fraudsters. And by lumping 10 million disabled people together into one homogeneous 'identity' group, thereby ignoring differences in disability and experiences - as well as differences due to age, gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality.
We now have within the UK a very large social group who are shockingly treated by significant sections of British society, through thoughts and notions that view the disabled as 'worthless' or a 'burden' - and by actions of actual abuse, harassment and violence. Where even the very basic notions of human rights or conventions of interaction and consideration are often denied, or simply not conveyed to somebody who has a 'disability'.
It is also a mass misunderstanding of disability, where having a disability is not just one small part of a person's identity, but becomes constructed as that person's one and only overriding 'feature'. A misunderstanding where physical disability often gets conflated with mental impairment, or where mental impairment often gets conflated with mental illness.
It is a deep-rooted problem and not only one born purely out of ignorance, but one born of a society that is deeply hierarchical and status seeking - constantly looking to set each other apart in terms of social class, age, skin color, values, beliefs, behavior or 'ability'. It is also a society that likes to simplify and take shortcuts in understanding the social world and its social order, but shortcuts that also lead to mistaken beliefs and negative stereotypes about social groups that some may have very limited contact with.
The disabled have become such a social group, a victim to 'shortcuts' that pigeon hole or box people off in the category marked 'dependent', 'vulnerable', 'a burden' and 'worthless'. And while we may have made inroads and improvements in the way we treat the disabled in terms of equality and justice, we are still very much at the beginning of that journey - not near its end.
A recent report called 'Hidden Hate' and produced for Greater London Authority Conservatives, is one such report that illustrates why we are still only at the beginning of that journey to equality and justice for our disabled. As 'Hidden Hate ' focuses on the continuing failures within the capital city of London, the center of British politics itself, in tackling disability hate crime.
How many crimes
The annual crime survey for England and Wales consistently highlights a huge discrepancy between officially recorded hate crime figures committed towards disability - of 1,841 in 2013, compared to estimated figures of 62,000 per year. The Crime and Disabled People Report released last year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) estimated there were about 72,000 incidents of disability hate crime committed every year from 2007-08 to 2011-12 in England and Wales. However, some disability organizations put this figure at around the 100,000 mark.
I would say that even an estimate of 100,000 could still be very much a low one. The point is that we don't really know, and at the moment this Government (as did previous Governments) have no real passion or inclination for discovering the true extent of the problem.
Over the years I have spoken to a number of disabled people, most of them admitted at some point that they indeed had received some kind of negative reaction, abuse or violence because of their perceived disability. Charities such as Scope and Mencap conduct their own surveys, surveys which consistently record that at least half of those surveyed had received some level of harassment, abuse or violence because of their impairment. And often on a regular basis.
A recent survey by Scope suggested that in London alone, 1 in 4 disabled people had suffered hostile, threatening behavior or violence since the 2012 London Paralympics - an event that the UK Government often argue to be one that has changed negative attitudes towards disability within the UK for ever. Some change.
If these surveys are correct, and considering that there are 10 million disabled people within the UK as an whole (5 million below retirement age) and potentially a quarter or perhaps even half of them have been subjected to abuse, harassment and violence - then we are looking at hundreds of thousands of incidents per year (not 62,000, 72,000 or 100,000). We in fact may be looking at a huge social crisis across the whole of the UK, and this is perhaps one reason why Governments don't want to know the true extent of the problem. It's a political hot potato and potentially an expensive one to fix. So, let's hide it in the cupboard and hope it goes away. Well it won't.
When is a crime not a crime
When is a crime not a crime? According to Government definitions: "Hate crime involves any criminal offense which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a personal characteristic. Hate crime can be motivated by disability, gender identity, race, religion or faith and sexual orientation".
Simple enough. So a 'hate crime' is basically a criminal offense motivated by a personal identity characteristic of the victim. I get that.
Similarly, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) define hate crimes as 'hate incidents': "Any incident, which may or may not constitute a criminal offense, which is perceived by the victim or any other person, as being motivated by prejudice or hate"
Again, simple enough. A hate incident is something again motivated by prejudice or hate, but may either be a criminal offense or not a criminal offense.
So, for the purposes of simplicity, we can now use these two common and widely used definitions of 'hate', to actually break 'hate' down into two completely separate categories. A 'hate crime' is a criminal offense motivated by prejudice or hate. A 'hate incident' are behaviors still motivated by prejudice or hate, but are not considered to be criminal offenses. This actually seems to be the way the law of the land is now applied by the police and the courts as regards 'hate crime' in general.
So, what sort of prejudiced behaviors are not criminal offenses? This is a much more difficult question to answer. Trying to get an idea of the number of laws currently in use within the UK is the equivalent of trying to knit fog. Thousands of new laws are passed every year, in addition to the many thousands that are all already in existence. We even have some laws still in existence within the UK that date back to the 13th century.
So, you would imagine that there should be a law to account for pretty much any negative action displayed towards the disabled. However, while the law of the land may seem clear when written down on paper, there often seems to be some difficulty in implementing it in reality - specifically ones that could refer to 'hate'.
So, in terms of abuse, harassment, intimidation and violence, we seem to have most of the bases covered when talking about the law concerning 'hate'. Certainly, calling a disabled person a spastic or a cripple won't send the perpetrator for a spell in the local jail, but very rarely would such abusive language not also be accompanied by some level of intimidation, threat of harm to the victim, repeated harassment, and the victim being in fear for their own personal safety.
Below are just a couple of examples of 'typical' day to day 'incidents': "Ben has Asperger syndrome and lives alone..... Difficulties began one day when youths living nearby shouted at him using terms such as 'pedophile' and 'gay'. They were objecting to him looking out of his window overlooking an area where children played. Objects were thrown at his window. Sometimes the verbal abuse and harassment continued when he left the flat or saw the youth's streets away when he was walking to and from the shops. Teenagers and youths would follow him and call out 'There's that weirdo guy, he's gay' and 'there's that gay man who looks out the window'. When the harassment and verbal abuse continued even though he avoided looking out of his window, he felt that it had become a campaign about his living there. He recognized some teenagers who were from another road who had become involved in the harassment" - ('Living in fear' Report 2014, p53-54) 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." - (The Guardian 14th August 2012)
Certainly, both cases would be classed as abusive, threatening, intimidating and harassing, as well as frightening for the victim. But would they be classed as criminal offenses by the police, if reported? In many cases, these events don't get reported to the police, but when they do, they often get treated as 'incidents' rather than the criminal offenses they seem to be - and for various reasons.
Certainly, many 'incidents' such as kicking walking aids away and pushing disabled people over, or tipping them out of wheelchairs will be prohibited by the 'law of the land' somewhere, as they involve threat and harm to personal safety - as well as some degree of intimidation, harassment and violence. Therefore, why are many such events often also treated as 'incidents' and not 'crimes', if they do actually get reported to the police? Perhaps the law of the land is not always being applied as it should be, or sometimes it may simply be too difficult to enforce, particularly in terms of gathering enough evidence to secure a conviction. Gathering evidence also takes time and resources.
However, when the law of the land is applied and used correctly, and a conviction is secured, the courts may not always have the 'will' to use Section 146 , a section of the law that may be used to impose an longer prison sentence on those convicted of 'hate crime' against disability. In fact, the existence of Section 146 may suggest a lack of 'will' that stretches way beyond the courts themselves and into the upper echelons of law making itself.
Dissatisfaction with the handling of 'hate'
The report 'Hidden Hate' , highlights that many disabled people in London experienced abuse and violence, but did not report it to the Metropolitan Police. How many disabled people in London who fail to report 'hate crime' is arguably unknown, as even within the Hidden Hate report itself, the figures can vary widely depending on what survey or poll has been stated. However, we can safely say that at least 50% of those people in London who do suffer abuse, violence and harassment because of their perceived impairment, fail to report it.
Out of those who do report incidents, 56% of victims said they were generally dissatisfied with how the police handled the case. A dissatisfaction that was found to be a main factor in putting off many disabled from reporting further incidents to the police.
The report therefore illustrated a general lack of police training, expertise, empathy and awareness of disability, leading to instances where disable people who were reporting crimes against them, where often not taken seriously or believed - especially if the victim had a mental impairment. With many incidents often recorded by the police as being 'no crime' at all - or at best, being classed as 'anti-social' behavior.
However, such a failure to respond to incidents of abuse and violence can set in motion a chain of events were incidents may escalate into further and more extreme levels of abuse and violence. In terms of the motivation underlying disability hate crime, not responding to an incident not only gives a 'green' light to the perpetrator to carry on such abuse or violence, but may also send an unintentional signal to both victim and perpetrator, that society as a whole may actually condone this type of behavior, and is therefore behavior that is 'normative' of society.
Certainly, another factor picked up by the report concerning hate crime committed in London, is that disabled people themselves often have no awareness of what hate crime is, because negative attitudes, abuse, harassment and violence may have become such a daily and normative part of life for many disabled people.
I would perhaps even go beyond that statement and say that not only do some disabled people think of abuse and violence as normative, but that many abled-bodied feel that displaying such behavior is also normative - that the disabled somehow deserve this sort of hostile reaction. This is a theme Barbara Perry (2001) picked up in her research upon hate crime committed towards race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and gender. Where abuse and violence become a way of displaying and re-affirming not just perceived 'difference' between different social groups, but social status. Particularly towards social groups who have historically been portrayed as 'inferior' within society.
A continuing failure to protect
' Hidden Hate ', highlights that 'hate crime' not only effects the victim, but may also impact upon the family of the victim, especially those with young disabled children. Where abuse and harassment may become more subtle, but nonetheless becomes a daily, emotional and psychologically draining battle for all family members. However, many parents may also view 'hate' as normative of daily life, and would not necessarily report incidents to the police as a 'crime'.
Therefore, hate crime may often remain 'hidden' within society, because sadly, we may often regard negative attitudes and behaviors towards the disabled as actually part of 'normal' life. This is also a theme 'Hidden Hate' illustrated, highlighting a survey by Scope that indicate that two thirds of the British public find it uncomfortable and difficult even speaking to a disabled person. Similar reports indicate that people are so uncomfortable around disability that they would sooner walk past a disabled person in the street rather than talk to them. Whether you would call these behaviors 'hate' is open to debate, but such behavior definitely results in discrimination and marginalization.
Disabled children may be particularly vulnerable to hate crime, as much of it is often passed off or 'excused' as bullying. We as a nation still arguably fail all our children over 'bullying', often presenting it more as a passage of rite, than a crime. Where each individual is personally responsible for their own safely and security, and if you fail on this score then it's your own fault for being a 'wimp'.
Therefore, victims of bullying and victims of hate crime may attract a strong social stigma or social shame, the shame of failure as well as a degree of blame. Yet, it is not the victims who have failed, it is society itself, by its continuing failure to eradicate behaviors that should be particularly easy to eradicate, especially in our schools.
The NSPCC (The National Society for prevention of Cruelty to Children) claim that 46% of children and young people say they have been bullied at school at some point in their lives, and that in 2011/12, 31,599 children called Child Line about bullying. For some disabled people 'bullying' starts early in life and continues until the day they die. A shameful and continuing failure to protect even a very basic fundamental human right, the one to be free from violence.
Therefore, hard questions indeed need to be asked about Government 'will' and 'commitment' in protecting its citizens, not only from abuse and violence, but also from exploitation. It's getting to the stage now where massive failures to protect certain sections of society from any kind of abuse, harassment and violence, is also becoming a 'normative' part of daily life within a modern UK.
For example, most recently we have had the 'child sex abuse scandal' in Rotherham, were 1,400 teenage girls, some of them as young as 11, had been systematically targeted, raped and assaulted over a 16-year period. The police, the local authority and social services were all allegedly aware of the problem and the scale of the problem, but failed to do anything about it - again for various reasons.
This latest 'scandal' is just one of an ever increasing list of scandals that take place within the UK on a regular basis, and it may indicate that our leaders at both local and national level are failing many sections of society. Is it because some sections of society, still simply don't matter
Is current 'disability hate crime' legislation inadequate
Yes, is the simple answer? Current legislation treats disability hate crime differently to hate crime committed towards race, sexuality and religion. Any disability related abuse or violence can only be treated as an aggravating factor to the crime, which may attach an extended judicial sentence under Section 146 of the law, if it is implemented by the court. Current hate crime legislation relating to incitement of abuse and violence on the grounds of race, sexuality and religion, therefore still does not include disability. Changes to this law were proposed in 2013 but were rejected by the UK's Law Commission, as the Commission believed that incitement towards disability may not even exist.
Arguably, this rejection not only indicates an unwillingness to treat abuse, harassment and violence committed towards the disabled as seriously as abuse, harassment and violence committed towards race, sexuality and religion - again mirroring the notion that abuse and violence against the disability may actually be normative of society. But arguably it also indicates a 'politically' motivated fear over the potential numbers of perpetrators out there, if the law was indeed extended to include disability (putting added pressure on an already overstretched police force and judicial system). If hundreds of thousands of incidents are taking place every year within the UK as I suggested earlier, then even if only a small percentage of these actually went to court, they would probably clog up the judicial system and our jails for many years to come.
' Hidden Hate ' itself highlighted that although very few hate crimes are reported to the police, many of these do not actually make it to court - and there may be many reasons for this. Arguably, splitting 'hate' into categories of 'criminal offenses' and 'incidents' perhaps undermines the recording process, especially with pressure on police to cut recorded crime figures, and with ever decreasing resources to do so. Additionally, the police may need to spend considerable time and effort in obtaining hard evidence that can actually get a case to court.
However, even as it stands, Section 146 is inadequate. It leaves the application of this piece of legislation up to the presiding judge, and very rarely does it get used. Therefore, violence, harassment, theft, rape or murder are often treated purely as 'criminal offenses' and are not considered to be motivated by a person's disability - even when the courts indicate that the victim was indeed only 'vulnerable' to the crime because of their perceived disability. It is not only another failure in protecting our disabled from abuse and violence, but another way of 'hiding' behavior towards the disabled that is primarily motivated by prejudice and bias.
Are the police all bad
No, I should make it clear that I believe that the police have a very difficult job, and that job may not be made any easier by our politicians and our law makers.
The police are under immense pressure through cost cutting measures and a reduction in police numbers, as well as pressure to reduce crime. Cuts to police funding were announced in the October 2010 Government's spending review, part of a program of austerity measures brought in to tackle the economic deficit. Therefore, total funding for the police is argued to have been reduced by about 20 per cent by the end of this year. Although these reductions are argued by the Government to be savings generated through the cutting down of bureaucracy alone, the ACPO feel that the impact of cost cutting would in reality translate into fewer police officers. Some reports have police numbers down by many thousands, compared to police numbers in 2010.
Yet, despite decreases in the number of police officers, crime levels have been claimed by the Government to have also fallen and indeed continue to fall. However, critics of austerity and cost cutting, argue that the true picture is actually impossible to know because of serious problems over the accuracy of crime recorded by the police. Problems in the recording of hate crime is just one example of this inaccuracy.
As pressure increases on the police to cut costs, pressure is also increasing on the police to reduce recorded crime. As our jails also become full to the brim, pressure is on the CPS not to prosecute cases. And with pressure upon the courts not to send people to jail whenever possible, increasing custodial sentences by applying Section 146 will not be attractive. While this may sound very 'conspired', I'm just trying to illustrate that many people within the legal system are under ever increasing pressure to not only do their job, but to do so with ever decreasing resources.
Therefore, political 'will' in tackling disability hate crime may be pretty much none existent, as any attempt to find out the true number of disability hate crime and making improvements in the recording of it, may come back to bite any Government on the bum (financially) - particularly with the consequences of higher crime figures and overcrowded or inadequate jails. Arguably, the disabled have also become easy 'cannon fodder' in these political maneuvers - as who will stand up for the rights of the disabled in a society where the disabled are often portrayed and perceived as being a burden, worthless or indeed fraudsters
What would improve things
Making the law clearer by including disability into hate crime legislation, rather than depending on Section 146 , would arguably move us down the road were all incidents of abuse, harassment, intimidation and violence are treated as 'hate crimes' by the police and dealt with as 'hate crimes' by both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service - if the evidence is there. At present we have a two tiered law system that treats abuse, harassment and violence motivated by prejudice and bias differently, just because the victims are disabled.
However, while 'Hidden Hate ' highlights continuing failures with some of our police, in some cases there have been definite improvements in how disability is dealt with. In Lancashire, the police have worked with disability organizations and the local authorities, in improving the way the police deal with abuse, harassment and violence committed towards the disabled. This has led to a massive increase in the numbers of 'hate crimes' being reported to the police and being recorded by the police indeed as 'hate crimes'. This is a model which should be applied right across the UK.
Once we have an indication of the true level of abuse, harassment and violence committed against the disabled, we then need to decide what we can do to prevent it. We can only do this by discovering the underlying motivation behind hate crime committed against disability. At the moment all we do is guess.
Hopefully, my own research into the motivation behind hate can offer some small insight into why these things occur. However, unless Government supports research like mine, we may never actually get to the root of the problem. While reports like 'Hidden Hate ' are important, we are starting to see many reports like these. Therefore, isn't it about time we stopped just talking about 'hate', and started to do something concrete in trying to prevent it