Yesterday, like a lot of people, judging from Facebook and Twitter, I watched Sally Phillip’s documentary, about her own experience of having a much loved son, Olly, who has Down’s, (and two other children), and also about the wider picture once a new screening programme goes live. This new screen is non-invasive and it’s thought up to 99% of foetuses will be identified. Sally travelled to Iceland, where the test is in place, and where there is a 100% termination rate at present.
There was an outpouring of emotion on either side of the debate. Many viewers, of which some had children with Down’s themselves, praised the programme. A smaller number felt that the programme was not balanced and did not give the other side of the debate – the lack of support for families, or how best to express the woman’s right to choose, sufficiently strongly.
I think it was a very strong documentary, with a wonderful and engaging presenter. I think, from the programme, that Sally herself is on a journey, exploring the woman’s right to choose and what implications that has, after this test is introduced, for people with Down’s. It’s a very difficult area, sensitively explored. In the end, given how hard that right was won, I support the woman’s right to choose, but I do feel that we need to see far more positive images for people with Down’s and disabled people generally, in society. The medical profession does need to work on its presentation of the diagnosis too – it is not a curse, or a tragedy, to raise a disabled child. It may well be a challenge, given the cuts and the attitudes of many in society, and particular conditions present particular challenges. That’s not the same thing. Luckily for me, living with chronic migraines, this is not a condition that could be picked up with testing and no doctor has ever suggested, to my knowledge, that migraineurs do not have a right to life. But where will the dividing line fall, in the future, between those granted a right to life, and those deemed a ‘risk’ to their parents, and a burden?
It made me look back at my own book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, which was published in 2011. In the chapter, Not them but us: society’s challenge, I examined the wider issues of our attitudes towards disability. When we condemn the perpetrators of disability hate crime (the main theme of the book) we tend to believe that they are in the wrong – and that we are better than them. But our general attitudes, although they are shifting in the right direction, remain somewhat negative – especially when it comes to disabled people marry, or disabled children coming into the world. As I wrote then: “Discrimination starts before birth for a disabled person, and continues right up to the point of death. Expectant mothers are offered an increasing array of pre-natal testing and if there is the possibility of giving birth to a disabled children they are offered, quite rightly, counselling and advice on which steps to take. As a feminist, I do believe in the right to choice whether or not to continue with any pregnancy, but this does not take place in a framework of neutrality towards disability.” I haven’t diverged from that view, even though I wrote that chapter five years ago.
Lastly, as I wrote in my conclusion: “The obsession with the body beautiful, which puts such pressure on young people to self-harm and stop eating, and on people of all ages to have risky cosmetic surgery, is as damaging ow as it was in classical times, if not more so….Perhaps one of the saddest consequences of this is the choice that some parents of disabled people make, to mask the obvious signs of their child’s impairment (particularly children with Down’s syndrome) with cosmetic surgery, so that they can avoid the mockery that they would otherwise face. So where do we start to make the change? It has to start with an acknowledgment that none of us is perfect – that is what makes us human…We all grow old and infirm, and die. But at those times of vulnerability, we still believe that our humanity should be recognised, beyond our looks, our ability to work or our intellect. Disability, therefore, is part of our human condition and cannot be set apart.”
Well done to Sally, and a great production team, for raising these thorny and heart-felt questions.
About a month ago, I designed and sent out a short survey about disability hate crime, concentrating on motivation, but also covering a few other questions such as location of incidents, gender and race of attackers and nature of the incident or attack. This was done under the auspices of the Disability Hate Crime Network, for which I work as one of the pro bono co-ordinators. Grateful thanks to all the co-ordinators, for all their input – it was so valuable – particularly Simon Green’s thoughts in the very early stages, when we came up with the idea, and later Anne Novis, Stephen Brookes, Mark Cutter, Mel Close, Rosemary Irwin, Sarah Hewitt and Beverley Smith.
We are all very grateful to everyone who has done the survey – it is only a small survey, but we believe it does shed some light on the motivation for some attacks, and hopefully it will lead to more detailed research in the future.
Thanks also to the Guardian newspaper, which has commissioned me to write a short comment piece on the research in Guardian Society. Thanks to Survey Monkey for the survey template. It’s appreciated. It allows not-for-profit organisations like ourselves, with no funding, to carry out small bits of research for free (except for our time). We hope it contributes to the wider debate on what fuels disability hate crime.
Summary of key findings from disability hate crime motivation survey
Question 1: do you define yourself to be a disabled person?
89% of those completing the survey defined themselves as disabled people.
Some of those who didn’t self-define were completing the survey because other family members had experienced hate crimes.
65 shared their conditions, with some explaining they had done because they felt it had triggered an attack.
One person, who had a number of conditions including anxiety and depression came home after suffering a horrific sexual assault and murderous attack. They wrote: “My neighbours had seen my facial injuries and saw I had lost my front teeth and had put two and two together after watching the local news on TV. They could see how vulnerable I was, and this was when everything escalated so badly that I sold my house to a landlord, moved out and had to rent for a while…I did this as I was desperate to escape the bullying for my daughter and myself.”
Another, with rheumatoid arthritis, causing impaired mobility, was targeted because of their blue badge, as was an amputee, who was shouted at for using a disabled parking bay and called a ‘scrounger’. Another wheelchair user felt they were targeted for having a visible disability.
Question 2: have you experienced a hate crime or hate incident?
87.2% of those responding had experienced a hate crime or incident.
11% had not.
61 explained more about their experiences, which were wide-ranging. Some flashpoints, however, were familiar – public transport, disabled parking bays, jealousy about perceived ‘perks’ and ‘not looking disabled’:
One person said: “I have had cars parked close to the rear of my car to make it difficult for me to load my wheelchair…I’ve experienced a number of incidents. I’ve been chastised
for managing to walk to my front gate without my walking stick, (it’s only a couple of steps). I’ve been insulted for using a disabled toilet and slapped on a bus for using a designated seat. I’ve twice been reported to the DWP for being a ‘bogus’ claimant…had my car repeatedly scratched (16 reports to police), had my car spat on and an egg thrown on it.
Another said: “I was having much needed repairs to our conservatory when a neighbour shouted over the hedge ‘if I was living on benefits I’d have a conservatory too!’ The conservatory came with the house and was over twenty years old.
Another reported: “I’ve had a man trying to take away my walking stick saying I was “too young and beautiful” to use it. I’ve had two men try to shove me out of the way on a pavement because I was walking too slowly and they were trying to get to a pub,
On occasion, children were involved: “I was deliberately barged into by more than one of a group of 8 year French old children who were on the same site as a convention I attended. The children from this language school were harassing disabled attenders of our convention, kicking sticks/crutches out from under people and barging into them “accidentally”. Their supervising adults weren’t supervising properly. My friend who was with me didn’t see the first child bash into me, but she heard them making remarks about my arms and saw the second child bash into me. I was furious as I had noticed the children barging adults off the paths around the site. I complained to the university venue who were useless and my convention organisers who were superb and reported it to the police alongside a number of other disablist, LGB and T phobic hatecrimes our bi convention got on that site. The police took a statement and went around pestering the university venue management till the children’s supervisors were found and doing their supervising which reduced the harassment a bit. The police then didn’t follow up as promised which I found frustrating and I knew no charges could be pressed as identifying the specific children would be hard.”
Another talked about public transport: “I was travelling on a bus to shopping one day and the bus was quite full but a guy who had a pram wanted to sit with his partner and wanted to sit at the front where I was sitting and demanded I move. I said no, and tried to explain about my disability. He called me a ‘spas’ and a ‘mong’ and said I should not be left out.
A lack of understanding of disability is evident:
“I was asked why I use a wheelchair some times but had been seen using sticks on others days, I tried to explain that my condition varies from day to day and on days when I can walk I try to do so. I was then told I was just fat and lazy and was doing it to get benefits. I have been abused for using a blue badge. Been called a spastic, and to go to bloody work…I have been spat at.”
Of the 61 who gave further details about their experience, 11 mentioned being called ‘scroungers’ or being told to get off benefits, or that they were too lazy to work.
Question 3 – What was the location of the hate crime or incident?
The locations chimed with places that both the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and I, in both Getting Away with Murder and in my book, Scapegoat, have identified as flashpoints for disabled people in previous research.
24% of attacks happened at home; 57% on the street, 4% in care environments, 20% on public transport, 12.8% in schools or educational establishments, 3% in hospitals and more than one place – 28.5%. This last category allowed people to name other places where attacks took place as well. 26 people added extra comments. A small number reported being attacked or harassed on social media or at work.
Other attacks happened in pubs, supermarkets and in the car. One person said: “This is not a single incident, rather an accumulation of incidents that are very similar. It makes you dread using public transport at times.” 6 out of 26 said that attacks happened in supermarkets and shops.
Question 4: What do you think the motivation for the attack was?
67 answered, and 33 skipped this question.
Interestingly, few people – two – pin-pointed ‘scrounger rhetoric’ as behind disability hate crime although it is important to stress that a larger number had mentioned it in previous answers. 34 said ‘disability hate’ or ‘disability’ without going further. A number – 7- felt that ‘vulnerability’ – a feeling that the attacker could ‘get away with attacking them without any come-back had increased the hatred towards them. There was also a clear theme of jealousy toward perceived ‘perks’ of disability – which some non-disabled people had tried to either exploit or had attacked the disabled person for, out of hostility. One person felt they had been targeted because of their ethnicity and disability.
One person said: “I think the main motivation is “because they can” .. I am in no position to defend myself.. Although the harassment escalated when I took over the tenancy of a local authority garage located on an access road these people believe to be “theirs” (it isn’t)….After taking on the tenancy I started to experience an increase in frequency of incidents of abuse, threats and harrassment culminating in me no longer using the garage, hardly ever leaving the flat and if I do getting in the car and going away from here, no longer sitting in the garden with a book/the radio, constantly being jumpy and nervous, etc..”
The person who experienced the sexual assault wrote: “They saw me ill following the serious assault and I believe the motive was my vulnerability (I had had no problems with these particular neighbours when my health had been normal).”
Another felt that they had been exploited and targeted:
“They saw my disability and were aware of benefits I received. One person became my boyfriend and would threaten to finish with me or harm himself if I didn’t give him money, or buy him mobile phone s. I ended up with eight mobile phone contracts, which I later found out he was selling and using the money for drugs.”
Another wrote:”I wish I knew. People are just plain spiteful. I was an easy target who could never fight back physically, so, I was a punchbag, both physically and mentally.”
One person felt it was a mixture of motives: “exploitation of vulnerable people, attacking someone who can’t fight back, your word against theirs, sadism”.
Another felt it was partly due to the benefits crackdown: “Bigotry, fuelled by propaganda against people on benefits”.
Another person saw it as mixed too: “Venting a prejudice is I think the main motivation. There’s usually some kind of ‘useless’ part of the labelling, a bit of ageism, a bit of disablism, and a very unpleasant bit of invective. Plus a ‘get out of my way, or why are you blocking everything up’, or some such. A typical one, ‘get out of my fucking way you old hag’, or ‘bitch or get back to your shithole you geriatric cow’.”
There was a sense of the perceived uselessness and invisibility of disability. One person wrote: “On one occasion when I fell a man just stepped over me like I was vermin… I have been shoved backwards into the lift as I attempted to leave. Two women walked past me – instead of allowing me to move forward they just carried on walking, pushing me backwards back into the lift door. I felt ignored and overall humiliated.”
Another wrote: “Most of the abuse is from strangers , who now think that every one who is disabled is lying about being ill. Because this government are spreading so many lies, regarding us. Also relations who think you can be better and go to work as you are not ill every day. Also I am sorry to say at church through ignorance. Also benefit assessments. I have also been pushed off of sticks by a stranger who was very abusive.”
This was echoed by others, along with a strong sense of jealousy:
“Disability hostility, resentment as think I get money, that I don’t work or worth helping. Jealousy of adapted car, irritation as may be in their way on street, young people think its funny, therefore worth ridiculing me, some truly believe we are drain on society, should never be allowed to be born or live, others think easy target.”
Another identified a freak-show element: “Mockery of disability. The teenagers concerned were known to the police and to local school teachers as perennial troublemakers.”
These came up again: The perpetrators were three young women who were shouting at a middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome and calling him brain dead….Their motivation appears to be ignorance and/or perceived comedy value.”
Question 5: What gender was your attacker?
69 respondents answered this question and 31 skipped it.
30% of sole attackers were male, and 17% female. Interestingly, there was more than one attacker in 49% of cases and in most of those women were involved (accounting for the rest of the attackers). It’s worth mentioning that in the latest Crown Prosecution Service Hate Crime Report, women are defendants in around 25% of disability hate crimes, but only around 13-15% of other forms of hate crimes, except crimes against older people, where they are also defendants in around 22% of the cases. Clearly, as I have written before, there needs to be far more research on the role of women in disability hate crime (and older people, a cross-cutting group).
One person recalled:
“Pushed from chair by women, verbally abused by both men and women. Usually older people.”
Another said: “Male in most incidents, some verbal incidents have included females in group (at least one group appeared to be a family with adult children), one verbal incident involved a female only.”
Another wrote: “Worst incident – an older white woman. Otherwise, mostly men.”
Another wrote: “Two separate incidents attacked by black male gang of young men, attack on street Young mother with child abused me in shop car park.
Question 6: What was the approximate age of your attacker?
Age of attackers: 61 answered this, and 39 skipped it. The percentages did not add up to 100%, because of group attacks.
Under 16: 19.67% (12)
16-20: 18.03% (11)
21-30: 32.79% (20)
31-40: 32.79% (20)
41-50: 29.51 (18)
51-60: 11.48% (7)
61 and over 11.48% (7)
Prefer not to say 3.28% (2)
Many pointed out they were attacked by more than one person, so more than one age group but perhaps there is a small chink of light that the percentages of attacks by younger people are slightly lower than people in the midrange for age.
Question 7: What do you think was the ethnic group of your attacker?
63 answered and 37 skipped
90% of attackers were white, 5% were mixed heritage, and other counted for 5%
White people are slightly over-represented as attackers in this survey – the last census found that 86% of the population identify as white.
Question 8: What is your gender?
71 answered and 29 skipped.
53% of respondents were female, and 45% male, with others preferring not to say.
Question 9: What is your ethnicity?
94% were white, 1% were mixed heritage, 1% was a highly identifiable racial group (so I am not including it here) and the remaining preferred not to say.
If you would like to join the Network and have an interest in disability hate crime, please go to:
If you would like to know more about disability hate crime, you can read the first report I wrote:
If you would like to read my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011), an investigation into disability hate crime in the UK and further afield, you can buy it in good bookshops or online at:
Over the last few years many disability hate crime campaigners have called for perpetrator analysis. I am one of those: I have been advocating for it since 2008, when I wrote the disability hate crime report, Getting Away With Murder, (for the UK Disabled People’s Council, Disability Now magazine and Scope). At the (British) Disability Hate Crime Network, run on email and Facebook, of which I am one of the co-ordinators, we believe that perpetrator analysis is important because without knowing more about why people commit this crime, it is very difficult to design programmes that prevent it from happening or dissuade offenders from committing similar crimes again in the future. (I recommended it again in my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, published by Portobello Books in 2011.) The Equality and Human Rights Commission recommended it in its report, Hidden in Plain Sight, published in the same year. The government promised to carry it out – which we joint coordinators at the Disability Hate Crime Network welcomed.
But it hasn’t happened, much to the frustration of many working on disability hate crime. It has been promised, through the National Offender Management Service and the College of Policing, but as far as we have been told, has not yet been published, despite many requests to see the data.
Simon Green, a co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and I were talking about motivation recently. He was talking about the crimes against him, and how it was clear what the motivation was. So we came up with the notion: if the analysis of offenders is not going to be published, why don’t we ask victims and survivors of disability hate crime whether they know why the crime against them was committed? Often people who have experienced this crime have very useful thoughts to feed into our knowledge of the crime – but at the moment, that knowledge is not being tapped.
We decided to do a short snapshot survey of people who have experienced disability hate crime to ask them this question and a few other questions that might throw light on the crime – such as location of the crime, gender, age of the attacker and so on. We hope the results may throw some light on disability hate crime and possibly lead to a longer and more detailed study, if there is funding available.
Please do complete the survey – but only if you are living in the UK and have experienced disability hate crime. We hope that the results will tell us more about motivation – the missing part of the jigsaw. In so doing, it may aid prevention of this crime in the future.
I would like to thank all the co-ordinators for helpful comments on the design of the short survey. All identifying details will of course remain anonymous; only non-identifying details will be shared and once analysed the data will be destroyed.
I took off for a quick trip to Norway last week, at the kind invitation of the Norwegian Network on Disability, to talk about my journalism uncovering disability hate crime way back in 2007 – though of course it’s an ongoing project – with the help of many activists, journalists and a few senior police officers who believed that disabled people were getting a very raw deal from the British legal system.
I don’t think I could have done that job without the help of two disabled feminists, Ruth Bashall and Anne Novis, whose understanding of gender based violence had underpinned their own grasp of disability hate crime. My own journey too started with the women’s movement, with the understanding that wherever you have an imbalance of power someone will abuse it (you can see that dynamic in care homes right now – read Goffman if you really need to understand the theory behind it). What the women’s movement did, brilliantly, was link activism and evidence to practice – and change how the legal system treated women affected by domestic violence and rape, to name but two gendered crimes. What we did with disability hate crime was shot through with the same anger and the same understanding that you have to have your evidence – your ducks in a row – before you can get change. Ruth and Anne had some of that evidence – my job as a journalist, along with my great friend, John Pring, at Disability Now, and a team of young disabled journalists, was to marshall so much that there had to be action and change.
Now, in Norway, in 2014, journalists and activists are asking – how do they go about creating that same process of change? As Berit Vegheim, a prominent disabled activist told me, she is coming across the very same disbelief that I encountered in 2007 – every time she finds a disability hate crime in Norway in her research, the police find an excuse as to why it was treated as something else (their hate crime law dates from just last year) – youthful high spirits, or motiveless malice – anything but disability hostility. (Katherine Runswick-Cole, from Manchester Metropolitan University also gave a presentation on disability in the time of austerity in the UK – I wish I had been able to stay for that.) There is a real unwillingness to accept that some people dislike and fear disabled people. But they do. Now Norwegian journalists and disabled people are putting together their own project to map disability hate crime there. I wish them all the best. I wish it wasn’t necessary. But I’m glad they have the laws, and really glad that the British experience is of some use. After all we all love a good Scandi thriller when it’s fictional – but it’s not so fun to star in one, unwillingly, as the victim.
I enjoyed doing my talk at the Wadham Human Rights Forum at Oxford University, on how human rights journalism is evolving in the age of the Internet – and how to fund the new human rights journalism. The Forum has had some wonderful thinkers visit – from Clive Stafford-Smith to James Harding, former editor of the Times and some great human rights scholars. I was honoured to be one of their number.
Lord Macdonald, who is now the Warden of Wadham, is also the former Director of Public Prosecutions and a really doughty defender of human rights. His work within the criminal justice system, to uphold the rights of the individual against the state, remains so important and ground-breaking. Now, at Wadham, he is encouraging young people from modest backgrounds to aspire to Oxbridge – also a radical aim – and also encouraging disabled students to reach high.
You can see it here – I’ve also suggested some links to some interesting thinkers on the future – both journalists and techies.
The Ebrahimi family, like so many others, have lived through the turbulent history of our country and Mr Ebrahimi is reported to have had refugee status in the UK. They – and Bijan, perhaps, in particular, as a disabled person, should have found solace and comfort in the UK, as I have done. Instead, their beloved Bijan is dead and he shouldn’t be. He needn’t have died. The British legal and social care system failed him, and I, as a campaigning journalist, will do my best over the next few months, to raise the profile of his case and try, as best I can, to bring some closure to the family who clearly loved him so much. At the Disability Hate Crime Network, on Facebook, co-ordinated by Stephen Brookes, Anne Novis, me and others, we will continue to follow the case and hold the criminal justice system to account. We will not forget Bijan Ebrahimi, and as a number of us hold advisory posts within the criminal justice system, we will do our best to make sure that what happened to him will be a wake-up call to our legal system.
I know, from my friend Anne Novis, whose seminal work in raising the false rape allegations against disabled murder victim, Albert Adams, kickstarted much of my research, that the Metropolitan Police Service is already looking at Bijan Ebrahimi’s case, and asking what lessons it should learn from it. Stephen Brookes and Ruth Bashall – both great disability rights campaigners – are going to share their thoughts about the case at the College of Policing tomorrow. Let’s hope those lessons are spread far and wide – throughout the British legal system.