News and Comment

Don’t stand by – hate crime against disabled people hurts us all

Monday 20 June 2011


A recent slew of incidents have drawn the nation’s attention to the experiences of people with learning disabilities. At the end of May, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) released its findings relating to the handling of the case involving the tragic deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca Hardwick. The IPCC listed a catalogue of problems, and pointed to the police and the council’s persistent failure to take seriously the experiences reported by Fiona Pilkington and her family over a number of years. Shortly after, the Panorama special exposed the persistent abuse by staff against people with learning disabilities and autism in Winterbourne View, a private hospital near Bristol. Today, the learning disability charity Mencap launches its ‘Stand By Me’ campaign aimed at ensuring that the police and the criminal justice system take seriously hate crime against people with learning disabilities.

It is important that we keep up the pressure for change. Hate crimes blight the lives of many disabled people, not just those with learning disabilities. While all crime hurts in one way or another, the very essence of a hate crime is that it hurts more than a parallel crime. Data from the British Crime Survey show that victims suffer distinct harms compared with victims of similar crimes that are not motivated or aggravated by an offender’s bigotry, bias or prejudice. This, alone, should mean that disablist hate crimes are taken seriously and not ignored or trivialised as in the case of Fiona Pilkington and Francecca Hardwick. Unfortunately, appeals to a sense of social justice on the basis of group identity can often be met with sympathy but little real commitment to change.

Waves of harm

Disablist hate crime is not, however, a ‘minority issue’. The waves of harm created by hate crime have far-reaching implications beyond the victims, and strike fundamentally at social cohesion, citizenship, and even national productivity. Our research on violence and hostility against disabled people found that hate crimes have powerful symbolic and concrete impacts that extend far beyond the physical and emotional harm experienced by victims. Family members of disabled hate crime victims, who may not be disabled themselves, can similarly be victimised. Other disabled people who have never experienced hate crime also restructure their lives to avoid putting themselves at risk. Hate crimes degrade the communities in which they occur, members of which often feel a sense of shame and anger.

Ultimately, the exclusion of disabled people means that we are not allowing all our citizens to live their lives to the fullest potential. Our research shows that hate crime against disabled people at work, in public spaces and in the community can lead to victims giving up their jobs, relocating or leaving education and training. It is unsurprising that, for this and other reasons, disabled people have poorer education and employment prospects and outcomes even when they have similar or higher qualifications compared to their non-disabled counterparts. At a time when this country is embarking on a massive programme of welfare reform, surely it makes sense to unleash the full potential of all segments of the population. It has been estimated that by unleashing the potential of disabled people, an additional 1.3 million will be in work, boosting the UK GDP by at least £13 billion.

What does it mean to do nothing?

Yet, pejorative attitudes towards the capacity of disabled people to contribute sustain endemic low aspirations and fatalistic acceptance that disabled people should not expect to live fulfilling lives. The Conservative MP Philip Davies sparked anger recently by suggesting that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage to increase their chances of being taken on by employers. Using the specific example of people with learning disabilities, he argued that they “by definition, cannot be as productive in their work as somebody who has not got a disability of that nature” and therefore should be willing to receive lower pay in order to secure employment. Yet, as our work for Inclusion London demonstrated, this neglects the fact that many people with learning disabilities (and disabled people more generally) already receive less pay for doing the same job as their non-disabled counterparts, and yet still suffer from lower levels of employment.

This pernicious de-valuing of disabled people is not merely economic, but indicates a disdain for their equality as human beings. This lends itself easily to the de-valuation of the patients in Winterbourne View hospital whom the staff had stopped seeing as complete people. This lends itself to the ease with which Fiona Pilkington’s repeated and desperate pleas for help fell on deaf ears as the experiences she spoke of amounted to nothing more than ‘low level’ incidents that were not priorities for action. This lends itself to the countless instances when we look away as a disabled person is subjected to verbal abuse and ridicule in the streets or on public transport.

By doing nothing, we are making a damning indictment of our own sense of humanity and the kind of society we want to live in. By thinking that disablist hate crime is merely a ‘disability issue’; that the characteristics of disabled people make them inherently ‘vulnerable’; that only the police, local authorities and services providers are responsible for dealing with it, we are allowing ourselves to be comforted by our lack of culpability in doing nothing. This must change. Hate crime against disabled people hurts all of us.