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What can we do about disability hate crime?

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On Hate Crime Awareness Week (9th – 16th October 2021) we hear from Nick Watson, Professor of Disability Research from the University of Glasgow, about what we can do about disability hate crime and its disproportionate affect on people with learning disabilities. 

People with a learning disability don’t need to be told about hate crime – it is others who need to be told. There is much more of it than is widely recognised and many people with a learning disability face discrimination on a regular basis, with some people being abused almost daily.

Hate crime takes many forms and includes verbal abuse and insults, bullying; both online and in-person, extremist web blogs, anti-social behaviours, financial exploitation, institutional abuse, denial of care and support, physical violence, threat of attack, domestic violence, sexual abuse and harassment, and, in extreme cases, torture and murder.

Hate crime takes place everywhere: in people’s homes, in their neighbourhoods and their local communities, on public transport, in public places, at work, school or college. In some cases, hate crime can become a ‘spectator activity’, as groups of people watch crimes being committed without intervening, or even, on occasion, egging on the perpetrators.

One thing that we do need to tell people with a learning disability is not only that hate crime is wrong, but it can become so much a part of a person’s life that it becomes normal; when this happens it must be reported. It is only when we report a hate crime  that we can start to take action to stop it – and we must stop it.

Being abused over a period of time, even so-called ‘low-level abuse’, such as name calling, can really hurt people. It can make people physically ill and can affect their mental well-being leading to a loss of self-esteem and lack of confidence. It stops people going out, visiting friends, or taking part in community activities. It also leads to people feeling isolated and excluded from their local community.

When hate crime is reported the important thing is what can we do to stop it. A lot of attention has been rightly, focussed on recording just how extensive disability hate crime is and where it happens the most. These are really important facts to know, but if we want to stop hate crimes, we need to know how we can tackle them and the action that we must take – something that is much, much more difficult, and less well understood.

We also don’t know why people commit hate crimes and perhaps these two are linked. In a study published in 2008, Scope noted that many judges describe hate crimes against disabled people as ‘motiveless’, a term that is neither helpful nor true. Some say that disabled people are subject to hate crime because they are seen as easy targets and less able to defend themselves. Others think that hate crimes reflect wider attitudes to disability and that disabled people are seen as different, are not like them and are not part of their community. These attitudes are often really deeply held, and this is what can make tackling them very difficult.

Others think that hate crimes reflect wider attitudes to disability and that disabled people are seen as different, are not like them and are not part of their community. These attitudes are often really deeply held, and this is what can make tackling them very difficult.

We really do not know ‘what works’ in tackling hate crime and studies on this are quite limited. One thing we do know is that punitive approaches, one where individual perpetrators are singled out and punished, or sent on courses, are not very effective. What is needed is a more ‘holistic’ approach, one that can get to the root of the problem, and which considers not just the offender’s individual attitudes and problems but also where people live, the stresses and strains they face in their everyday lives and their activities and pastimes; an approach that engages with the wider community.

These activities take a long time if they are to be effective; simple one-off events have little or no effect.  In fact, in some cases, short-term, one-off interventions such as diversity training may even be counterproductive and end up reinforcing negative attitudes.

Community development approaches are perhaps the best way to tackle hate crime. These approaches aim to bring communities together and through group-based activities help people learn about each other and their communities, creating common purpose. Many people with a learning disability live segregated lives and are not really part of their local community. This makes them easy targets. Because they are rarely included in activities, they can feel lonely and the Coronavirus lockdown has, for many people, made this even worse.

A community development approach would aim to tackle this by bringing together people with a learning disability and their neighbours to take part in activities such as sport, art, theatre, or music. This would give people the opportunity to learn about one another and get to know each other, while discussing how prejudice affects them. To be effective this has to be facilitated, as this process can be challenging and can sometimes raise difficult issues. They also must discuss not just individual attitudes, but look at other issues that are important to the community, such as: housing, the availability and quality of local services, health care and education, and how the community can come together to help improve the local environment.

This type of work is not easy, is hard to mainstream, not cheap and requires specialist knowledge. There is a great deal of support for this approach; what is needed now are the finances and resources to make it happen.

Nick Watson

Nick Watson is a Professor of Disability Research at the University of Glasgow.


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