A guest blog here by my friend, and colleague on the Disability Hate Crime Network, where we both serve as pro bono co-ordinators, on vulnerability and disability hate crime. Anne has huge experience of navigating the criminal justice system as an expert. She serves as an advisor to the Metropolitan Police on disability hate crime.
Vulnerability and Disability Hate Crime
To be or not to be a vulnerable person?
By Anne Novis MBE
I am vulnerable.
This is what the law says as I am a disabled person, a wheelchair user and a person who receives care support.
Yet I do not feel I am and I do not feel that treating me as such does justice to who I am as a person or what I experience around hate crime. It certainly does not enable justice through the police or courts.
I could go on about my feelings on this, how disempowering it feels, how such a label does not in any way ensure I get the responses I should get when experiencing hostility due to being a disabled person. Suffice to say it’s not a description I find acceptable to be labelled.
I, like all of you reading this, can be in vulnerable situations, where someone decides for whatever reason to target us for a crime. They will usually assess their own risk first for any type of crime against anyone. It’s normal. Yet for some reason around disability justice agencies think it becomes an acceptable ‘reason’ in its own right for doing the crime, a reason that then puts the onus on the disabled person rather then the perpetrator.
Yet if someone targets me because I am a vulnerable person is that not hate crime? In my opinion it is if the act is directly about me being a disabled person.
Yet statutory agencies find it hard to get their heads around this, they think that if a vulnerable person, or adult at risk, is targeted it’s due to no more then that, being ‘vulnerable’. To me whatever term or word is used if someone targets me for that reason then I perceive that as a hate crime or incident.
Lets look at this another way, if I dress differently, say as a Goth and I am verbally abused due to my perceived difference, is that hate crime? Some say yes, it is being recognised as a type of hate crime. If I am from a culture, race, religion or have a sexuality that’s perceived as somewhat different from what others may perceive as the norm and then targeted due to that perceived difference then that too is recognised easily as hate crime. Yet for disabled people if we are deemed as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘adults at risk’, and often we are, and targeted for a crime it’s not automatically understood as hate crime.
Why not I have to ask?
Yes it is easier for criminals to target some disabled people because we may be perceived as ‘less able’ an ‘easy target’ or ‘easily misled’.
But what is behind such crime? What is motivating the offence, what language, behaviour, or prejudice?
Is it for the victim to just accept they are ‘vulnerable’ or an ‘adult at risk’ and therefore change the way they live?
A focus on perceived vulnerability when addressing hostility against disabled people is a distraction from what is really occurring.
Looking at why a perpetrator decides to target a disabled person, the context, timing, language is necessary but at the end of the day they have targeted a disabled person for a crime and therefore automatically a presumption that this is more then likely a hate crime needs to be the first thought when recorded and investigated.
In the CPS guidance on hostility and vulnerability it states: ‘It can be simpler, more intuitive, to proceed on the basis of vulnerability but an inappropriate focus on vulnerability risks enhancing an already negative image of disabled people as inherently “weak”, “easy targets” and “dependent” requiring society’s protection. Instead, the focus ought to be on enforcing the victim’s right to justice and scrutinising the offender’s behaviour, prejudices and hostility so that the case is properly investigated and prosecuted for what it is.’
Yet how many police officers read this guidance, have any understanding of the types of hostility disabled people experience?
Very few, for the focus is on ‘vulnerability’ rather then Hate Crime, ‘Safeguarding’ rather then prosecution and justice.
Another example is bullying, many of us can be bullied as children in the playground at school, and there are extensive actions in place to address this now.
Yet when a disabled person, an adult, is bullied many think this is just a fact of life, even the disabled person due to the lack of appropriate responses they get when reporting it.
I was told once by a police officer when reporting that I had been verbally abused as a disabled person “What do you expect? You just have to ignore it and toughen up”. A comment I recall from school days.
Yet as adults is it ever acceptable to bully another adult? I think not and again this is a type of hostility against disabled people that needs recognition as disability hate crime for you only have to read a couple of case studies to understand how easily ‘bullying’ can lead to violence, torture or murder of a disabled person.
As victims we are already changing the way we live, some isolate themselves, never go out alone, and are anxious and fearful, find ways to hide themselves from the notice of others for fear of what abuse they may experience. I know because I do this myself at times and hear it from so many disabled people. Focusing on us as ‘vulnerable’ adds another burden upon us, for no matter what I, or others may do, this perception will be a barrier between us and justice.
It frustrates me immensely that in my work advising justice agencies again and again the issue of ‘vulnerability’ becomes a stumbling block in the work on Disability hate crime. Yet another hurdle to be overcome before we as disabled people can rightly get the justice we deserve as fellow human beings.
It is the perpetrators action and behaviour against disabled people that needs more focused attention by police and the courts. Protection comes when we are assured of appropriate policing and justice, they go together, but never should the focus just be on protection, or safeguarding, for we need the police to investigate and understand that just as in other types of hate crime we are being targeted due to being disabled people.
So I am not a ‘vulnerable’ person, I am a human being who has a right to expect police and justice agencies to address my experiences as I perceive them and to also recognise what is really happening rather then accepting hostility against disabled people as something that cannot be changed because being a ‘vulnerable person’ means its to be expected, as though I am somehow at fault, inherently and automatically a lesser being, one who needs ‘protecting’ rather then justice.
The CPS guidance explains it as do I:
‘When the nature of a person’s disability makes it easier for the offender to commit a particular offence, 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.’ (my emphasis)
Then goes onto to explain:
Targeting a particular person to be the victim of an offence, because they are black or 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 offence, does not alter this. The victim is still being targeted specificallybecause of their disability.
‘Prosecutors must therefore explore fully the surrounding context of an offence committed against a disabled person, so that the true nature of the offence can be put before the court. There will be cases in which there is no other reasonable explanation, other than that the offender’s hostility was based on disability. This is particularly so in cases of abuse, violence or other offensive conduct as these offences tend to carry inbuilt within them the demonstration of hostility. For that hostility to be based on disability is but a short evidential step in many cases.
In other cases the question may be asked: what other explanation can there be? Let the defendant give his explanation and let the court decide. Courts are entitled to draw a reasonable inference that hostility based on disability was the whole or partial motivating factor.’
This guidance was produced in consultation with disabled people, we have yet to see it make much difference to the way police respond on the ground ensuring they record, flag, investigate fully so a prosecution could take place. We need to ensure it does make a difference by challenging the perception around perceived vulnerability.
CPS Guidance on Prosecuting Disability Hate Crime –
Hostility, Vulnerability sections