Creating a fairer Britain
There is a systemic failure by public authorities to recognise the extent and impact of harassment and abuse of disabled people, take action to prevent it happening in the first place and intervene effectively when it does. These organisational failings need to be addressed as a matter of urgency and the main report makes a number of recommendations aimed at helping agencies to do so. Specific sectors have a key role to play in responding to harassment. This series of briefings set out the key areas for improvement and our specific recommendations for each sector.
Our research suggests that disability related harassment is widespread but under-reported by disabled people and often unrecognised by public authorities. It often occurs at or near people’s homes and can take the form of non-criminal antisocial behaviour and minor/‘petty’ crime, at least initially. Where harassment happens at or near someone’s home, it is often repeated. Unchecked, repeated harassment can escalate in frequency and severity. By contrast, prompt action, often by agencies working together, can bring it to an end. Housing agencies have a role in both preventing harassment and in responding more effectively when it does occur.
Reporting, recognising and recording
There is a substantial gap between the amount of harassment that disabled people experience, the amount that they report to the police and the amount that is recorded as disability motivated. There are large variations in recorded figures for disability related hate crimes across police forces. These variations appear to reflect differences in police practice rather than in incidence of hate crime.
The low rates of recorded disability hate crimes suggest a lack of recognition of hostility/prejudice to disability as a potential motivating factor for either anti-social behaviour or crime. The Inquiry considered the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca Hardwick, and of David Askew, which were preceded by extensive anti-social behaviour. Both cases were also investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission who criticised the police for failure to recognise the anti-social behaviour as motivated by hostility to disability.
Addressing domestic violence against disabled people
The Commission’s definition of harassment covered a range of forms of behaviour including domestic violence. In situations of domestic violence, it can be particularly difficult for disabled victims to end the relationship and build a new safe life. All the respondents in Women’s Aid Federation England’s (WAFE) research into the needs of disabled victims of domestic violence said that ‘being disabled made the abuse worse, and also severely limited their capacity to escape or take other preventative measures’.
Harassment of disabled people takes place in many different settings but public transport has been identified as a particular hotspot. On and around public transport, including stations, stops, ticket offices and waiting areas were settings for harassment incidents cited in almost every focus group and interview conducted for the inquiry. These affected respondents’ lives not only because of the intrinsic features of the incidents themselves but also because many disabled people rely on public transport.
Respondents mentioned being stared or laughed at, avoided and commented on by other passengers. They also talked about other passengers showing impatience or annoyance, for example if they were slow or took up a lot of space with aids such as assistance dogs, sticks, frames and wheelchairs.
The relatively low number of crimes prosecuted as disability related is at odds with other evidence received by this Inquiry indicating the widespread nature of harassment of disabled people. The low rates of disability hate crimes recorded by both police and prosecutors suggest a lack of recognition of hostility/prejudice to disability as a potential motivating factor for crime.
The Inquiry investigated nine murders of disabled people and a tenth case where the perpetrator was initially charged with murder. Only one of the ten was prosecuted as disability hate crime.
Hostility/prejudice to disability does not have to be the sole motivation for a case to be prosecuted as hate crime. However the cases considered by the Inquiry seem to suggest that where another motive is evident, it will be put forward as the sole motive, rather than considering disability alongside it. Where another motive is not evident, the crime might be considered to be motiveless. There is no data available about the numbers of murders where the victim is a disabled person so it is not possible to consider this against a wider base of cases.
Our research suggests that disability related harassment is widespread but under-reported by disabled people and often unrecognised by public authorities. Harassment can have short- and long-term impacts on both physical and mental health and few disabled people who participated in our research claimed to be unaffected.
The NHS is often involved in dealing with the impacts of harassment, tending to injuries and treating anxiety and depression. Health professionals can be the first or only contact that a disabled victim of harassment has with a public authority. As such they can play a significant role in supporting the victim to find a route to ending the harassment and finding safety. Health services have done much to improve their responses to domestic violence in recent years. As well as benefiting disabled victims of domestic violence, this approach could benefit victims of other forms of disability-related harassment.
' You’re right to identify [a] pivotal role for education in shaping attitudes and values.’
David Bell, Permanent Secretary, Department for Education, inquiry hearing, 27 January 2011
Schools have a significant role to play in addressing disability related harassment through:
Ofsted have placed equalities and human rights at the heart of their approach to regulation and inspection in England. The inspection framework for schools includes specific questions about:
Ofsted has introduced a ‘limiting judgement’ on equalities performance which means that schools cannot be judged as excellent if their equalities performance is inadequate.
Our research suggests that disability related harassment is widespread but under-reported by disabled people. Whilst most harassment is unlikely to trigger the need for a safeguarding intervention, some cases of harassment, particularly where it is ongoing, may require public authorities to investigate and take action to safeguard the victim.
As part of this inquiry we examined a number of very serious cases of harassment in which disabled people have died or been seriously injured. Ten of these cases are considered in the full report of the inquiry. We found that the appalling abuse of disabled people has been greeted with disbelief, ignored or mishandled by authorities, with tragic consequences. The cases give us some clues as to how and why such behaviour happens, and how, even when it is of a very extreme nature, it can go unchallenged. They show that a failure to tackle harassment can have dreadful results, both for the victims and also for society as a whole.
Local councils play a key role in delivering and commissioning services to meet the needs of their communities, leading partnerships with other agencies and planning a better future for their locality. Local councils are at the heart of the localism agenda, making decisions closer to local people. In order for disabled people to play an active role in this new local democracy, and ensure issues like disability-related harassment are seen as priorities to be tackled in their areas, local authorities will have to address the methods by which disabled people are engaged and involved, including strengthening their accessible voting mechanisms, engagement strategies and representation of disabled people in all areas including in public office.
Our evidence shows the most critical factor in organisations improving their performance, is the level of commitment and determination to address the issue shown by their leaders. Local councils have the opportunity to show such leadership on disability related harassment not only within their own organisations but within the partnerships that they lead and the communities that they work for.