As disability benefits are attacked, police investigations into crimes against disabled people are permeated by doubt – we must act!
A report by the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into disability hate crime highlights 10 cases in which disabled people faced severe abuse, nine of which resulted in the abused person’s death. All of the victims involved complained to the police or social services in the months leading up to their death and yet in five of the cases there wasn’t even a formal review into any potential failures by the authorities.
Reading this report, I thought that disabled people would need a Stephen Lawrence or Baby P case before the public demanded action. Then I realised that we already had one: the 2009 case of Michael Gilbert shocked many, and still little has changed. Gilbert, who had learning difficulties, was tortured and treated like a slave before his murder, while police missed three opportunities to intervene.
Yet it is disabled people’s very vulnerability that is allowing the authorities to escape each death without being subjected to public shame. While it can try and raise awareness of hate crime, the disabled community is highly fractured, often relying on the internet to bring together socially isolated individuals. The most vulnerable are trapped in houses, care homes or hospitals, making it much harder to literally gain visibility in the wider community. It is unsurprising therefore that a report by Scope in September 2010 found that 40% of people did not know a disabled person at all. And yet for disabled crime to really be taken seriously by the authorities it needs the wider public to hold them to account.
Worryingly, public opinion has rapidly turned against disabled people in the last year. Another survey by Scope this month found that 66% of disabled people had experienced aggression or hostility in the last year, up from 41% in May this year. This means that in just four short months hostility towards disabled people has increased by over 50%. In addition, almost half of those interviewed found that attitudes towards them have worsened since last year. It cannot be coincidental that this corresponds with a concerted attack on disability benefits by the coalition government which has been widely supported in most mainstream media.
Leaving aside the debate on whether the focus on disabled people’s benefits is, indeed, fair, what is clear is that the monthly press releases by the Department for Work and Pensions about how many people it has removed from the disability benefit employment support allowance have distorted the perception of disabled people into one of pure economic contribution only – making it acceptable for society to be sceptical about how truly “disabled” such people really are. Such doubt seems to permeate the investigation of hate crimes, as the report highlights police scepticism and a culture of disbelief as reasons which prevented disabled people seeking justice for the crimes against them.
This EHRC report goes some way to highlighting the scale of the problem we face, but action must now be taken. We have already seen separate inquiries by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into the cases of Fiona Pilkington and Michael Gilbert, which both found the police response to be flawed. Yet in light of the breadth of abuse against disabled people it is now time for a nationwide review to examine police practices in investigating disabled hate crime, and the role social services and health professionals play in its perpetuation.
We urgently need to rethink how we involve and promote disabled people in society and ask very hard questions of ourselves as to whether we can all do more, the government included, to ensure that disabled people are treated with the same dignity and respect that we all demand. With the current widespread animosity towards disabled people, it is shocking but shouldn’t be surprising that the perpetrators of some of the most extreme crimes against disabled people, “didn’t think of their victims as human beings”.
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