In July, actress Ruth Madeley said a taxi driver had stolen her wheelchair following an argument outside London Euston station, but when she reported the incident to the police, they denied a hate crime had taken place.
Under UK law, something is deemed a hate incident if the victim or anyone else thinks it was motivated by hostility or prejudice based on disability, race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. It then becomes a hate crime if it crosses the boundary of criminality.
Though disability hate crime came into law in 2003 as part of the Criminal Justice Act, prosecutions are low. According to research conducted by leading disability charities Leonard Cheshire and United Response, over 7,300 disability hate crimes were reported to the police in England and Wales in 2019/20, but only one in 62 cases actually received a charge. Nearly half of all reports to police involved an element of violence, and one in ten of all reported hate crimes took place online.
“It’s the youngest of the hate crimes in the UK,” explained Dr David Wilkin, an honorary fellow at the University of Leicester, who works out of the institution’s Centre for Hate Studies. “The trouble with the UK government is that they don’t invest any money into finding out how many people are victims of it, so there’s an annual crime survey, but they never put questions about disability hate crime on it because that would involve spending money. Because they don’t put questions in the national crime survey, they don’t know how many people are affected by it, and because they don’t know how many people are affected by it, they say there’s no need to ask any questions on it.”
The low conviction rate for disability hate crime is a potential infringement of Article 14 of the Human Rights Act, as disabled people are being subjected to discrimination, and are missing out on justice. Leonard Cheshire and United Response’s research showed that reports of disability hate crime were up 12% across 36 regions in England and Wales in 2019/20.
I felt less than human, like my life didn’t matter
“If you report to the police station and say you’ve been a victim of disability hate, you’re probably unlikely to be believed, if you are believed then it’s recorded as a hate offence,” continued Dr Wilkin, who has conducted extensive research on disability hate crime after being a victim of it in childhood. “But the burden of proof is so high with hate offences”. If it’s difficult for the prosecutors to prosecute, then the courts’ job is almost impossible, so public order offences are often seen as the way forward.
“Now, of course, they get recorded as public order offences and not disability hate offences, and once again the government looks at this and says, it’s not happening very often.”
Content designer Chloe Tear has reported a few incidents of hate crime, including an online death threat and an occasion where an assailant threw eggs at her. She says both incidents were motivated by her being disabled.
“It had a significant impact on my mental health, especially when I had eggs thrown at me,” she said. “It really knocked my confidence and made me question how disability is perceived within society. I felt less than human, like my life didn’t matter.”
Tear said her experience reporting the in-person incident to police was “validating,” but she felt that her abuse was not taken as seriously, and “it was an inconvenience for them.” The investigation relating to the incident where eggs were thrown at her did make it to court.
“The investigation went on for months and affected my studies,” she explained. “It went to court but unfortunately, due to his age, there weren’t any major repercussions. He had to pay a fine. I felt belittled and it wasn’t fair.”
Following the death threat online, a six-month investigation took place, but it never went further, as the perpetrator used a VPN (virtual private network) to cover their tracks.
“The fact they got away with it is scary,” she added. “I know I have a strong network but I worry about other disabled people who might receive that message and not have support. Because of previous experiences, I would be hesitant to report online abuse. If I did, I would give my evidence and not want to be involved anymore. It was emotionally draining to be rung by the police, give statements and go over events, especially when it came to nothing.”
In contrast, Madeley’s experience was not taken seriously. After a taxi driver refused to drop her off at Euston station’s accessible entrance and demanded payment for a prepaid fare, he took her wheelchair and put it in the boot of his taxi. The police did not deem the theft of her wheelchair a crime, let alone a hate incident.
“I was shut down and made to feel as though I was making a fuss over nothing,” she said on Twitter. “After more fighting and asking for support, the police told me that nothing can be done. No warning to the taxi driver or firm, no accountability, no consequences.”
In 2020, The Law Commission made proposals for reforms to hate crime laws to remove the disparity in how current laws treat each protected characteristic. They also recommended that sex or gender be added to the list of protected characteristics when it comes to hate crime for the first time.
Following their research on disability hate crime, Leonard Cheshire and United Response said: “As this abhorrent crime continues to rise year on year, it’s time for the authorities, government and online platforms to start taking this damaging behaviour more seriously. Offenders must face appropriate repercussions and be educated on the impact of their cowardly acts, while increased funding for advocacy services is also urgently needed. Victims need to have better access to support across the entire reporting, investigative and judicial process.”
Despite her mixed experiences reporting disability hate crime to the police, Tear is adamant that it is crucial to report these crimes. She said: “I know it’s important to report it. It is only by reporting these crimes that we can know the true extent of disability discrimination in the UK. Disabled people need to feel like they are being heard and that punishment is given for these crimes. Otherwise disabled people will become reluctant to report.”