Disability hate crime is 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.
Disability hate crime represents Disablism carried through into criminal acts against the person. In the United States, the Matthew Shepard Act, expanded the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived disability.
When the nature of a person's disability makes it easier for the offender to commit a particular offense, police and prosecutors often focus on the victim being "vulnerable", an "easy target" and no further thought is given to the issue of hostility. This approach is wrong. Targeting a particular person to be the victim of an offense, because they are black, gay, or disabled is often, but not always, a clear indication of hostility (unfriendliness, ill-will etc) based on race, sexual orientation or disability. Seeing the particular disabled person as an easy target for a particular criminal offense, does not alter this. The victim is still being targeted specifically because of their disability.
Disability hate crimes may be one-off incidents, or systematic abuse that may continue over periods of weeks, months or even years. Disability hate crime may occur between strangers who have never met, between acquaintances or within the family. People with learning disabilities or mental health issues are often "befriended" by people who then exploit them. The term "mate crime" is being used by some disability organizations within the disabled community to raise awareness of the issue.
Perceptions of 'vulnerability' can also lead to the perception that the victim is responsible for the crime, through reckless behavior, rather than the perpetrator. For example a disabled person may be perceived as being engaged in risky behavior by being out alone after dark. The parallels between this pattern of blame-shifting onto the victim and earlier manifestations of similar behavior in the prosecution of rape and other sexual crimes are readily apparent.
The historical failure of police forces, prosecutors and some social care organizations to treat Disability Hate Crime as a serious issue, an echo of previous failures over other forms of hate crime, particularly racial and LGBT-focused hate crimes, has lead to chronic under-reporting. This under-reporting is both pre-emptive, through a widespread belief within the disabled community that they will not be treated seriously by law enforcement, and post-facto, where police forces investigate the crime as non hate-based and record it as such.
Prosecutors should work closely with their Area Hate Crime Coordinators to ensure that the Coordinators have an overview of all the disability hate crime cases in their Area, can identify trends, ensure cases are being properly dealt with and, where appropriate, ensure Community Impact Statements are obtained.
Research by Mencap (Living in Fear, 2000) found that nearly nine out of ten people with learning disabilities had been harassed or attacked within the last year, with 32% saying they experienced harassment or attacks on a daily or weekly basis. 23% had been assaulted.