Disability hate crimes are very different than other hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity and religion.
Hate crime laws in the UK (and also in the United States) are designed to protect people against crime motivated by the characteristics of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and disability. These laws arguably vary in the degree of commitment to the protection they offer each social group, and in the degree of belief that 'bias' or 'prejudice' are actually a problem that some communities indeed face.
A hate crime is defined as a prejudice motivated crime, often violent, which occurs when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her membership (or perceived membership) in a certain social group. Examples of such groups can include but are not limited to: sex, ethnicity, disability, language, nationality, physical appearance, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. Hate crime generally refers to criminal acts that are seen to have been motivated by bias against one or more of the types above, or of their derivatives. Hate crime incidents may involve physical assault, damage to property, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse or insults, mate crime or offensive graffiti or letters such as hate mail.
Something that became particularly obvious to me when I first started studying crimes committed against disability within the UK. Crimes that are often not considered to be real crimes at all, but if they are, often assumed (under that old virtue 'common-sense') to be motivated by the perceived 'vulnerability' of the victim, or indeed the 'frustration' that the abled-bodied may feel in dealing with the pesky disabled. It's a kind of victim blaming that we Brits are particularly good at, and akin to arguing that female rape victims have somehow contributed to their own misfortune by the way they dress or smile.
The difference of disability
Disability hate crimes are very different than other hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity and religion. Firstly, they are crimes not always committed by complete strangers to the victim, but sometimes by friends, neighbours, relatives and carers. Secondly, the victim is far less likely from the beginning to be believed by the police and the courts that a crime as actually been committed (although this situation is arguably slowly changing). And finally, British law treats hate crimes against disability much less seriously than hate crimes committed against race and religion, where longer prison sentences are not automatically handed out to the perpetrators of abuse, harassment and violence motivated by bias towards the disabled - but left to the discretion of the judge.
Certainly, Britain's Police force and Crown Prosecution Service have been accused for many years for overlooking the severity of hate crime committed towards disabled people, and as recently as 2014, the former director of public prosecutions, Lord MacDonald, raised concerns that the police were indeed constantly failing to recognise the sort of actions that constituted disability hate crime. Lord MacDonald noted that while improvements in the police's tackling of racial hate crime had been made, this had not been replicated in relation to disability. So, questions need to be asked why?
While Britain's legal system is often perceived as traditionally slow to change, any UK Government can be seen to move at a much more lightening pace regarding legislation when it suits them. We can witness this eagerness in the establishment's almost instantaneous amendments to British anti-terror legislation and alterations to economic policy. In contrast, the official response to abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disability within the UK has always been extremely poor. In November last year, data acquired by The Independent newspaper via an Freedom of Information request, found that hate crimes recorded by police had risen to 2,765 incidents in 2014-15 compared to 1,955 incidents in 2013-14. However, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in 2013 found that an average of more than 70,000 crimes are actually being committed each year. While my own research puts this figure comfortably above 100,000, a figure that may still seriously under-estimate the level of abuse that disabled people suffer daily.
Acts of 'Hate'
So, what constitutes a 'hate crime'? The list is extensive: such as verbal abuse like name-calling and offensive jokes; harassment, bullying or intimidation; physical attacks such as hitting, punching, pushing and spitting; threats of violence; abusive phone calls or text messages; hate mail; online abuse; circulating discriminatory literature; harming or damaging personal property; graffiti; arson; throwing rubbish into a garden; throwing dog poo through a letter box; and making malicious complaints. Phew! A pretty extensive list that illuminates the behaviours that race, ethnicity or religion don't have to keep quiet about and simply tolerate. Why then are these behaviours often not considered to be 'hate crimes' when actually committed against disabled people?
Arguably, the current British Government has been keen to downplay hate crime committed towards disabled people for many years, particularly as they have also been keen to reduce welfare spending upon Britain's sick and disabled. In order to do so, they have often sold extremely dodgy welfare reform to the British public by primarily (and cynically) portraying the disabled as frauds and scroungers. A deliberate tactic of scapegoating that singles out disabled people for unmerited and negative treatment - although certainly not a new phenomenon within the UK. But it's dangerous game because it builds upon deep-rooted negative social representations that already surround disability and ones that (intentionally or unintentionally) characterize an entire group of people as inherently deviant and immoral. It also borders on illegality, if discriminatory literature or political rhetoric concerning disability is deliberately produced in order to portray disabled people indeed as a group of people made up primarily of moral deviants, fakes, benefit cheats and spongers.
Vulnerability versus the language of 'Hate'
A small part of my own research focuses on the language used during acts of 'hate crime' and it really is an eye-opener to see the underlying assumptions implicit in the actual words used by the perpetrators of abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disability. Words that indicate a deep-rooted belief that the victims are indeed perceived as socially inferior and morally deviant because of physical or mental impairment - and primarily as non-working and therefore dependent upon others.
Over the past two years I have been contacted by more than 60 disabled people and families of disabled people from all over the UK, all wanting to record their experience of abuse and harassment. In a so called modern society, these tales are not just shocking but harrowing, and although my study is relatively small scale, it covers a fair amount of ground. So, thanks to all who have contributed so far, I for one know how difficult it was for many to talk to me, email me or to just to get their friends or relatives read out/send statements to me.
Everybody who contacted me had suffered more than one incident, so although I primarily concentrated on the very last incident in order to get as much accurate detail as possible and to determine percentages of events, where appropriate I also made notes on previous incidents in order to get a more rounded 'flavour' of the language and actions used by the perpetrator. As such, the word used by the perpetrator may be able to give us a simple clue into the thought processes operating during such displays of abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disability.
In-depth research on disability hate crime within the UK is relatively rare, that's why I do what I can and in any way I can, particularly as most other research continues to be (lazily) restricted to counting incidents. Arguably, this may be partly due to a lack of funding caused by a general unwillingness to actually tackle the problem. An unwillingness not only displayed from a self-interested government, but also from some of the larger disability charities themselves - those with an eye also on government funding of some kind and who certainly may not want to rock the boat too much. Particularly as maintaining the status quo within society may often be a much more profitable option for many people.
But then again, there may also be a strong presumption within British society that puts the motivation of 'hate crime' committed towards disability primarily upon the victims themselves, in terms of their 'vulnerability' and where the victim is simply seen as being extremely easy to attack or exploit in some way. Consequently, there are a small handful of researchers within the UK who 'obligingly' orientate their research towards the perceived 'vulnerability' of the victim, something which automatically discounts the identity characteristic of disability playing any role at all in the phenomena of disability hate crime. Disability as a motivator of 'hate' therefore becomes completely and conveniently dismissed from the equation, something which would not be tolerated in any research focusing upon crime committed towards race or religion.
However, the language used during such attacks upon disability indicate that there is indeed something much more going on than simple 'vulnerability'. Language that may illuminate a perceived but deep-rooted, power 'imbalance' existing between perpetrator and victim, and one that signals an implicit socio-cultural 'power' hierarchy that guides what social behaviours are seen as legitimately appropriate to group interaction, particularly those involving race, ethnicity, religion and disability. A deep-rooted and long-standing oppression of disability that is perhaps so normalised within British society, that it not only helpfully distinguishes the 'weak' from the 'strong' solely based upon the characteristics of physical or mental ability, but also marks out the way 'resources' are to be naturally allotted within society.
In any society, the acts of domination, exploitation and oppression that we may witness ourselves, or actually believe to be at play within the corridors of power or even the boardrooms and shop floors of the workplace, arguably over time also become behaviours internalised and normalised within society at large. Where the perceived 'strong' will legitimately seek to manipulate, control and exploit the perceived 'weak' for their own social, economic or political advantage (as this is arguably the perceived norm of life as we know it). In a social, economic and political world perceived as naturally a 'dog eat dog' one, some people may therefore do anything to become successful, even if what they do harms other people.
Something that may not only lead to a naturalised and normalised view of inequality in the way resources, prestige and presumed worth are allocated, but also a society where we are actually 'allotted' a slot in the social pecking order by other people, and one which designates what resources we are entitled to and those that we are not. An allotted social position solely based upon certain aspects of our identity, and more often than not, based upon the perceived strengths and weaknesses of those identity characteristics.
Now, I can understand why some researchers want to focus upon vulnerability as the chief motivator of 'hate crime' committed towards disability (and old age). Indeed, if people can't defend themselves too well from abuse, physical attack or exploitation, then that will obviously attract the unscrupulous amongst us. However, a focus on vulnerability alone may be far too simplistic an argument. If we truly believe that the identity characteristics of race or religion can motivate some people to commit abuse, harassment and violence, then we simply can't choose to ignore that the identity characteristic of disability may also possibly act as a similar motivator of crime. If we do not, what is so different about the identity characteristics of disability and the identity characteristics of race, ethnicity and religion that cause such an apparent anomaly? Is there really such a difference at play, or are we simply picking and choosing what we want to believe, for whatever reason, rather than looking objectively at the problem and properly investigating the problem?
At the very least, most crime may be argued to be influenced by some kind of vulnerability, as no criminal wants to make life harder for themselves by picking upon a powerful and totally secure adversary. That's not how crime works, be it crime against the state, crime against business, crime against race, crime against religion or crime against disability. Most criminals will still simply pick and choose their targets, looking for some kind of vulnerability or weakness that can be taken advantage of and exploited - be it opportunistic crime or targeted crime.
My research still has a very long way to go, because I look at disability hate crime from a number of different angles, and as such, that is something that is indeed severely hampered by a lack of funding. But as my work stands at the moment, the motivation of 'hate' cannot simply be tagged to the 'vulnerability' of the victim alone. Disabled people have always come up against poor social behaviour, and behaviour that arguably not only has some of its roots in the 'vulnerability' camp, but some also firmly planted in the camps of oppression and domination. In line with Iris Marion Young's (1990) thinking on oppression, it's an oppression that can be split into its component parts of exclusion, marginalisation, humiliation, incarceration and violence. Acts and behaviours that are witnessed in many cases of hate crime that I have come across committed towards disability.
If we look at the language used within such crimes, this becomes illuminating too. With the help of disabled people who have contacted me over the past number of years, this part of my research has moved on considerably and can be split into three distinct areas - physical disability, mental impairment/learning difficulties and facial disfigurement. These areas throw up some interesting differences in the way perpetrators not only commit their crimes, but in the way they also use language.
Physical Disability & Hate Language
I feel I am in a good position to preview a little of my research based upon the cases that have been presented to me so far, and although this study is relatively small, I feel the interim results may be extremely useful and helpful in the continuing fight against hate crime committed towards disability. Firstly, in the 47 cases of abuse and harassment of physical disability presented to me, the following words were found to be used by the perpetrator(s):
Apart from the humiliation, marginalisation and threat of violence implicit in many of these attacks, the words used by the perpetrator imply inferiority, deviancy, immorality and weakness, and across three distinct categories of abuse linked towards physical impairment. All of the victims had certainly come across 'hate crime' before in some shape or form more than once in their lives, with some also suffering bullying during their school years. Previous attacks involved either complete strangers or people actually known to the victim - dishing out abuse such as name calling, swearing and mickey taking; harassment such as graffiti and online abuse; and violence such as pushing, kicking and tipping people out of wheel chairs.
In the most recent cases, the 'benefit cheat' accusation is clearly seen within words such as fraud and scrounger (57% of cases). Secondly, the 'getting in the way' and 'non-productive' accusation of disability is seen within words such as 'leg-iron' and 'cripple' (40% of cases). Thirdly, aggressive and highly abusive 'swear' words are used in almost all cases (87%) indicating that some kind of wanton aggression and threat of violence are never that far away. However and surprisingly, the 'freak of nature' accusation often associated with physical disability in the past was only found in 6% of modern cases. While the threat of violence was very high, actual violence only made up 4% of the attacks described to me. Only 10% of crime was reported to the police with none actually going through the courts, reportedly due to a lack of evidence. All of those respondents felt that their cases were not investigated properly.
The majority of the victims were white males (85%) with most attacks carried out by white males under the age of approximately 40 years of age (95%), often unknown to the victim and usually committed in a visible public space, with members of the public near-by. When asked to describe the 'social class' of the perpetrator, 87% of male victims thought the perpetrators were of lower social class or working class, something determined by accent, language use, hairstyles and clothes. In 70% of cases against males the perpetrator acted alone. When asked about what they considered to be the main motivation behind the crime to be, no victim stated vulnerability, but focused either on negative media and political rhetoric concerning benefit fraud (53%), gaining power over another person (21%), the intentional humiliation of another person (10%) and ignorance of disability (14%).
Female victims were far more likely to be attacked by fellow females (96%), often when on their own, and although the perpetrators were also unknown to the victim, they often acted within a group of people rather than singularly. The leading perpetrator was said to be predominately middle-aged, working class to middle class in appearance, with the victims primarily attacked in public car parks where they had parked their car in a disabled bay.
While the benefit fraud angle again reared its ugly head (100% of attacks included words referring to being lazy or a sponger) many of the victims (85%) felt that ignorance about disability a more likely driver of such abuse - where the victim had a disability that was largely hidden away from public view. While no actual violence was involved, the threat of violence was more greatly experience when the perpetrator of the attack was male, something that also implied that the perpetrator was also on 'a bit of a power kick'.
As an aside. I asked respondents about their employment experience within the UK. Only 8% had never worked at all in their lives, with 42% currently working at the moment, either part-time or full time, and 14% looking after children on a full-time basis. Out of those currently working, 25% said that they had faced some kind of bullying and harassment at work either by colleagues or managers, either in their current employment or their previous one. Of those not currently working for any reason, those with experience of the Government's Work Capability Assessment, 60% found it problematic, degrading or humiliating.
Mental impairment & Learning Difficulties
Out of the 16 cases which I had considered to be disability due to mental impairment or medium to severe learning difficulties, the following words were found to be used within many attacks:
Straight away we can see a marked difference in terminology compared to physical impairment, although inferiority, deviancy and weakness are again implied. Moral deviancy is perhaps less on show than in the accusation of laziness and benefit fraud model, however, in many cases perpetrators seem to not only be crudely referring to mental illness, but conflating mental illness with mental impairment to quite an extraordinary level. Not only that, but 50% of all attacks occurred when the victim was actually being escorted by friends or family, situations where the victim should arguably have been in a less 'vulnerable' position than if they had been on their own. Situations predominantly stated as involving name-calling, jeering and mickey-taking, and certainly not a pleasant experience for anybody witnessing such cruel behaviour to their escort. Most of these attacks were also committed by people already known to the victim (87%).
All of the victims had suffered multiple attacks during their lives and often by the same people - including neighbours, relatives and carers. Past attacks which were said to have also involved theft, exploitation, violence and in one case, sexual assault. However, as regards this study, the behaviour primarily revolved around humiliation and perhaps the attempted marginalisation of a disabled person. Where the perpetrators were noted as being young (aged 12-30), predominantly male, white, acting on their own (25%) or in groups of 2 people or more (75%). Many were already known to the victim, being based within the local area. 75% of cases where reported to friends (6%), to social workers (18%) and to the police (50%) - although no case led to a criminal prosecution.
When asked about the motivation of the crime, all victims felt that they were especially vulnerable to abuse and harassment because of their impairment, and all had suffered bullying most of their life because of it. However, only 12% of victims felt that their vulnerability was actually the real underlying motivator of abuse, with power displays or a bullying personality (62%) and people 'having a laugh' at their expense (25%) being thought of as the main motivating cause. All respondents thought that they were being laughed at and being made fun of, and all respondents thought they were being perceived as getting in the way of 'busy' people (at least part of the time).
Interestingly, of those cases which were related to me by other people (people who I will call the 'helpers') all considered the vulnerability of the victim to be the chief motivator of abuse - by not being able to physically or verbally defend themselves, and by sometimes placing themselves in 'vulnerable' positions. When asked to give a second possible motivator, the majority thought that the perpetrators were indeed 'having a laugh', 'showing off' or simply 'throwing their weight around'.
All respondents were not in current employment, with only 12% having ever worked in their lives, and all who had worked had left their previous employment due to bullying and harassment within the workplace. Another 37% had looked for work but failed to find an employer to take them on. All respondents therefore had regular experience of the WCA process, with many finding it scary (87%), humiliating (62%) and confusing (100%).
While only 4 people came forward to talk to me, this category was still highly illuminating nonetheless. However, rather than recording single words concerning the latest incident, I've transcribed some of the expressions perpetrator's used towards the victims over a period of incidents, primarily because it was actually harder to pick out many single words that were consistently being used - apart from the words 'ugly' or 'disgusting'. Expressions that included:
Once again we see a difference in terminology, although terminology that still obviously implies inferiority and deviancy, at least in terms of physical appearance. Having seen photographs of these disfigurements, none of them seemed actually severe enough or visible enough in order to warrant the consistent and arguably unhealthy attention that they seemed to get from complete strangers. Strangers who obviously thought it appropriate to make fun of others simply because of the way they look.
Most comments came from people unknown to the victim, often in a group, and often when the victim was in the company of other people. Attacks were made in public spaces, on public transport and more frequently in pubs and clubs. Perpetrators were said to be predominately young (16-30), male or female, and of various colours, creeds and social classes. Although the victims found incidents to be distressing, hurtful and intentionally humiliating, victims found many of the attacks to contain an underlying feeling of aggression that went way beyond people simply enjoying 'a laugh' at some somebody else's expense.
All four respondents stated that although they were quite use to people sometimes staring at them, cruel comments and jokes seemed to be getting more frequent over the years - although all four had also been bullied at school at some point when they younger. All respondents worked for a living, with two being self-employed, working from home. None had experienced problems with employment discrimination as far as they were aware, and all four were in happy personal relationships. In terms of possible motivation for the abuse, respondents raised a number of possible influences on such behaviour:
I am going to let you, the reader, draw your own conclusions for the time being on what might be the most likely motivator underlying abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disability. Be it vulnerability, an exercise of power, simply having a laugh or expressing frustration about the social world? Clearly, there are themes reoccurring throughout my study that suggest 'vulnerability' is not a completely adequate explanation of the cause of disability hate crime.
Across all categories of disability we witness terminology that draw upon and aggressively makes fun of certain aspects of another person's perceived identity. Not only implying deviancy and inferiority of some kind, but an inferiority that arguably acts as a socially authorised 'green light' for any abuse, cruel jokes, harassment and violence that the perpetrator may feel fit to indulge in. Rather than feeling embarrassed by their actions, many perpetrators not only come across as aggressive and cruel, but arguably pleased by their verbal dexterity and cleverness in dominating other people.
While vulnerability may certainly cut cross factors such as the opportunity to act, in many cases of the abuse and harassment in my study, victims are still targeted (and repeatedly so) even if in the company of other people. These attacks are therefore hard to just pin upon the 'vulnerability' of the victim, and seem motivated by something more deep-rooted within society itself, and in the way society views disability and difference. Certainly there are existing academic theories out there that fit research such as mine. Anybody interested may want to take a look at Barbara Perry's work on 'Doing Difference' and Gordon Allport's work with stigmatized groups, in order to get an angle on the direction I am coming from.
But clearly, disability hate crime is an extremely difficult area for anyone to research, and for many different reasons. Firstly, the area is fraught with 'politics'. Government doesn't want research like mine, neither I'm afraid do many charities who deal with disability. The reason? Research like this may rock the boat, not only by asking serious questions about the negative way society still views disability, but about research itself, and how it may become closely tied to the vested interests of other people - either politically, economically or psychologically. Secondly, such research is extremely emotionally demanding and time consuming, because people don't normally want to discuss their experiences of 'hate' as it is so bloody difficult to resolve the fact that people may behave horribly towards you, simply because of perceived physical ability, mental ability or bodily appearance. That last point is indeed a very good reason alone for me keep on doing what I am doing.
Allport GW. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice