Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry reveals serious consequences of systemic failure to tackle harassment of disabled people

12th September 2011

Extensive evidence from a groundbreaking inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that many disabled people still experience harassment or abuse as part of everyday life, but that a lack of recognition of the scale and nature of the problem is preventing some public authorities from addressing the issue as effectively they could.

The report, “Hidden in Plain Sight”, suggests that many disabled people have come to accept harassment – including verbal and physical abuse, theft and fraud, sexual harassment and bullying – as inevitable, partly because public authorities do not consistently have adequate structures in place to prevent and address harassment. Further evidence from disabled people shows that they live in fear due to this lack of support, and because perpetrators often do not face consequences for their actions. 

The inquiry, which covers Scotland, England and Wales, suggests that Scotland has made significant progress since 1999 in adult protection law and policy, which other parts of Great Britain should learn from. However, there remain challenges, both in public authorities understanding the problem and responding effectively, and in shifting wider public attitudes about disability and disabled people. 

The inquiry illustrates serious, systemic failings in the way that public authorities have dealt with disability harassment through a detailed examination of ten cases of severe abuse, nine of which resulted in the death of the victim.

The Commission’s investigation into these ten cases found that some public bodies were aware of earlier incidents of harassment, but had taken little action to bring it to an end. Evidence hearings held by the Commission with the public authorities involved revealed that there was often a failure to share information between the different services and organisations involved. In five of the ten cases, no serious case review has been conducted, implying that lessons have not been learnt for the future.

These cases include that of Laura Milne, a young learning disabled woman who was tortured and murdered by a group of young people in a flat in Aberdeen, the main perpetrator stating afterwards that he had murdered her because she was ‘worthless’; and the case of ‘the vulnerable adult’, a 30 year old woman with learning difficulties in the Borders who suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of three men, one of whom was her carer, over an extended period of time. 

Evidence from disabled people found that they often do not report incidents of harassment, as it may be unclear who to report it to, they may fear the consequences of reporting, or they may fear that the police and other authorities will not believe them. The evidence also revealed that incidents are dealt with in isolation, rather than as a pattern of behaviour, and that there is sometimes a focus on the victim’s behaviour rather than dealing with the perpetrators.

The inquiry found that the true extent of harassment is not recognised by public authorities, despite disabled people saying it is a commonplace experience. The British Crime Survey shows 1.9 million disabled people were the victims of crime in 2009/10 [1]. However, these statistics exclude disability-related harassment that is not considered to be criminal behaviour.

Disabled people are more likely to be the victim of a crime than people who do not have a disability. According to one online poll, as many as 56 per cent of disabled people have experienced hostility, aggression or violence from a stranger because of their disability [2]. 

The inquiry makes recommendations to public authorities on how to address the problems it has uncovered, which the Commission will be consulting on before publishing a manifesto for change in the spring of 2012. The recommendations focus on three key areas:

• Recognition: senior management need to recognise this as an issue and show leadership; data needs to be collected by all agencies; a more positive attitude towards disabled people needs to be encouraged within wider society.

• Prevention: agencies must share best practice; staff should be given training and guidance on how to deal with disability-related harassment; research should be done into perpetrators and how to deter them.

• Redress: the criminal justice system must become more accessible and responsive to disabled people; police must routinely consider disability as a motive where a victim is disabled; victims must be better supported and perpetrators brought to justice.

Commissioner for the EHRC in Scotland, Kaliani Lyle, said:

“Disability-related harassment incidents and crimes are not motiveless – they often stem from deep-seated animosity and prejudice which feeds off the wider cultural devaluation and social exclusion of disabled people.

“The issue is ‘hiding in plain sight’ because as a society we have failed to recognise the nature and scale of the problem. Public authorities must address this serious, systemic failure as a matter of urgency. 

“Nationally in Scotland we can point to encouraging changes, with a much more rights-based approach to adult protection than is the case elsewhere in Great Britain.  There are also examples in Scotland of authorities rising to the challenge after very serious incidents.  This shows that effective and lasting systemic change is possible where there is leadership and commitment.  It is essential that the wider public sector learns from these examples.

“The Commission will be working with public authorities and organisations of and for disabled people to help find solutions that will make a difference to the lives of millions of disabled people and their families. 

“We are uniquely placed to carry out work of this kind. Our statutory powers have allowed us to set up the inquiry, gather evidence, issue recommendations and ultimately take enforcement action if necessary.”

Director of Social Work from Scottish Borders Council, Andrew Lowe explained:

“In Scottish Borders, public agencies have undertaken a comprehensive review of governance, management and practice of protection in the wake of these failures.  The principal changes are detailed in the appendix to the report. We commended many of these improvements to Scotland including the development of good practice guidelines for GPs in working with parents with disabilities and the formation of a critical services oversight group which provides a local chief officer forum which can be quickly appraised of critical issues. 

“Both our child protection and adult protection committees have been led by independent chairs since 2005 and these key personnel are remunerated on a sessional basis. I was invited to lead an important piece of work on behalf of the Scottish Government to improve practice governance in social work. This led to the publication of guidance on the role of the chief social work officer, the registered social worker and a framework for practice governance which aims to provide resources to support change in social work services to help improve practice.”

For more information please contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scottish Media Office on 0141 228 5979/5938 or on 07970 541369/07970 787 234.
For general enquiries please contact the Commission’s national helpline: Scotland 0845 604 5510, England 0845 604 6610, or Wales 0845 604 8810.

Notes to editors

[1] British Crime Survey, ONS, 2009/10
[2] online polling, Scope, 2011

Download: Report PDF ('Hidden In Plain Sight')

Download : Scottish Executive Summary for the report

The evidence base for the inquiry includes:

• more than 90 research and policy papers; 85 key informant interviews; 287 questionnaires from disabled people; 159 submissions to the call for evidence; 13 events for disabled people’s organisations, public authorities and public transport operators; 272 questionnaires from public authorities on the Disability Equality Duty.

• qualitative research based on 12 focus groups and 16 in-depth interviews which draws on the evidence provided by disabled people and analysed by Independent Social Research.

• transcripts of 76 formal evidence hearings held in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff and north Wales, involving 234 witnesses and 132 organisations. Witnesses included:

  • 11 local authority chief executives, one local authority leader, nine directors of adult social care;
  • seven chief constables, three deputy chief constables and five assistant chief constables; 
  • six NHS chief executives;
  • three housing chief executives; 
  • four permanent secretaries and 11 directors of government  departments (England, Scotland and Wales);
  • two head teachers, one deputy head and a principal of an FE college;
  • the victims’ commissioner, information commissioner and the chief executives of the National Offenders Management Service and Her Majesty’s Court Service;
  • the Director of Public Prosecutions, Solicitor General (Scotland) and two judges.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006, which took over the responsibilities of Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission.  It is the independent advocate for equality and human rights in Britain.  It aims to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people, and promote and protect human rights.  The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, and encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act.  It also gives advice and guidance to businesses, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals. 

Last Updated: 12 Sep 2011