A combination of our own research, released in tandem with official Home Office figures, resulted in a flurry of news pieces related to disability hate crime last week. This is an issue that rightly dominated the headlines and one that we at Leonard Cheshire care deeply about.
There has been an overall rise of 53% in specific crimes against disabled people and as I mentioned in a media interview on the BBC’s World at One, these figures are likely to understate the problem, not least because many victims either do not know or understand the processes involved in reporting them, or they simply don’t have the confidence to engage with the authorities.
The same piece highlighted the horrific abuse suffered by Belfast resident Michael Bailey, culminating in his own property being set alight. Consider that for a moment. Being forced to be a prisoner in your own home, penned in and living in the dark for fear of more missiles being thrown through your windows, and when you do venture out, the same people are there screaming volleys of abuse in your direction, peppering you with dog excrement? All for suffering the life altering experience of being disabled in a terrorist bomb. I’m registered blind, and have encountered personal abuse on more than one occasion myself. In the West Midlands, nearly half of the 1,609 disabled adults of working age surveyed by ourselves felt hostile behaviour has prevented them going out in their local area.
Michael was encouraged to report this relentless abuse to the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) through an advocacy service run by Leonard Cheshire Disability but such schemes are rare and abuse can compound the fragility experienced by disabled people, forcing them into hiding and exacerbating already poor mental health.
What can we do as a society to stop these sickening incidents from happening? It’s undoubtedly a community issue and it’s everyone’s responsibility to stand up for the kind of society we all want to live in; where people aren’t persecuted for their disability, race, religion or sexual orientation. We can help as a charity by raising awareness of the issue but there’s an argument for all hate crime offences to warrant equity of punishment. Currently judges are bound to sentencing on racial or religiously aggravated offences alone, while other types of hate crime are viewed as assault or criminal damage.
Sadly, I think there will always be an inherent lack of empathy from a small section of the general public, a fear of the unknown that can manifest itself in aggression or even violence. As disabled people are more active in the community, these incidents are unlikely to go away so we need to promote the concept of an inclusive society in schools, workplaces and other community settings while encouraging young disabled advocates to educate their peers, find a collective voice and fight for change.