EHRC harassment inquiry: Activists welcome report, but say rights approach is crucial


Disabled activists have welcomed the publication of a major new report on disability-related harassment, but have warned of the huge changes needed across an “institutionally disablist” society if it is to have any impact.

Speaking after this week’s launch of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Hidden in Plain Sight report, they called for a stronger focus on harassment and hostility as a disability rights issue, and for greater involvement of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) in addressing the problem.

Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), welcomed the report but said it was “unfortunate” it had taken so long to produce it, as it came more than three years after the publication of the ground-breaking Getting Away with Murder report, published by UKDPC, Scope and Disability Now magazine.

She said she was disappointed that there was not a greater emphasis in the report on disabled people’s “right not to be attacked or abused in any way” and on harassment and hostility being a “rights issue”.

She said: “The government has a duty through the UN convention [on the rights of disabled people]to challenge these things, and make sure the appropriate structures are in place legally to support us so we do not experience any form of harassment or abuse or attack.”

Newman said that the “institutional disablism present in every aspect of social life in this country is not being challenged and the government have the responsibility to take the lead in that challenge”.

She said it was crucial that the government funded DPOs to enable them to support individual survivors of hate crime and to be “directing the work” around disability-related harassment.

UKDPC has had four significant funding requests turned down by the government to carry on the work it started with Scope on disability hate crime.

Ruth Bashall, manager of Stay Safe, a Disability Action Waltham Forest project that tackles hate crime, bullying, domestic violence and sexual violence against disabled people, told the launch event that she worried the report was being published at a time when disability rights were not on the agenda.

She said there was clearly “institutional discrimination” across the criminal justice system, which “doesn’t deal with crimes against disabled people as crimes and doesn’t prevent crimes against disabled people”.

She said: “This cannot happen without disabled people but also the sort of sea change that happened after [the inquiry into how the police dealt with the murder of]Stephen Lawrence, based on partnership, an open approach, and organisations willing to be self-critical.”

She said public bodies had to engage with disabled people and their organisations over the report’s recommendations, and put resources into involving and empowering disabled people.

Dr Rachel Perkins, chair of the government’s Equality 2025 advice body, also emphasised the need for a rights-based focus on harassment.

She told the launch that it would take “whole system change to right these wrongs”.

She said: “Safety is a pre-requisite for involvement in our society. It is about the right of safety for all citizens and the right of redress for all citizens if their safety is violated.”

Anne Novis, who has been campaigning for 20 years on disability-related harassment, said she was “not hopeful” that the report would “lead to any massive systematic change” but did hope that it would “give a little nudge to the conscience of all those who should have believed us, enough to prompt action not just words”.

She said: “We can always hope and use it to try and get funding for initiatives as well as to remind those in control locally that they do have a legal responsibility to prevent harassment against disabled people and provide us with access to justice.”

But she added: “Whilst the media and those in leadership constantly demean us, label us as ‘scroungers’ and ‘unsustainable to support’ we will just see an increase in this problem, not a decrease.”

Katharine Quarmby, whose new book Scapegoat investigates some of the most shocking disability hate crimes of recent years, and who made key contributions to the inquiry, said the report was an important addition to work on disability-targeted violence.

She said the “solid” report had built on earlier research by disabled activists, DPOs and disability charities, such as Getting Away with Murder and the work of fellow campaigners such as Novis, Bashall and Stephen Brookes, who all contributed to the inquiry.

Quarmby added: “Maybe because it comes from a non-governmental body it will have more impact than previous reports that have been published. I hope it doesn’t gather dust.”

Brookes, who founded the Disability Hate Crime Network, also welcomed the report, and pointed to its emphasis on the need for agencies to work together to combat hate crime.

He added: “It is a piece of work which brings together all the things we have all been saying for a long time. To me the hope is now we can move forward with it.”

Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR and a member of the EHRC’s disability committee, said the report was “good” but had been “a long time coming”.

She said the “critical issue” would be how the EHRC held public bodies and the government to account in ensuring its recommendations were implemented “in a time of austerity”, and she called for the commission to publish regular progress reports.

Dr Ju Gosling, co-chair of Regard, the national organisation of disabled lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, also welcomed the report, but said she would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the experiences of disabled LGBT people, disabled women and disabled people from black and minority ethnic communities.

12 September 2011