EHRC harassment inquiry: ‘Culture of disbelief’ is preventing justice


Hundreds of thousands of disabled people are being subjected to disability-related harassment every year, but a “culture of disbelief” is preventing authorities from addressing the problem, according to a major new report.

The Hidden in Plain Sight report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which comes at the end of an 18-month inquiry which collected tens of thousands of pages of evidence, concludes that public bodies are guilty of a “systematic, institutional failure” to recognise disability-related harassment.

Mike Smith, chair of the EHRC’s disability committee and lead commissioner for its inquiry, told an event held to launch the report of a “culture of disbelief” that disability-related harassment could be happening.

He said: “It’s not just some extreme things happening to a handful of people: it’s an awful lot of unpleasant things happening to a great many people, almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands each year.”

Official figures show there were 1,567 disability-related hate crimes recorded by police in 2010-11, which Smith said was “a drop in the ocean compared to the stuff that is really going on out there”. Official figures suggest about 1.9 million disabled people were victims of crime in 2009-10, although not all of these crimes would have been disability-related.

Smith also said there was “significant under-reporting”, often because disabled people “do not believe that anything can and will be done”.

The harassment can include damage to property; theft; cyber-bullying; sexual violence; domestic violence; physical violence; and institutional abuse.

Smith told the launch that harassment causes many disabled people to “limit their own lives”, which “limits their ability to participate as equal citizens within our society”. He said that society “has to change in its attitude towards disabled people”.

Smith, who describes his own experiences of disability-related harassment in the report, says another shocking conclusion is how little information about the problem is collected by schools, local authorities, health services, and the criminal justice system.

Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), welcomed the report, which he said was “an important benchmark for the challenges facing us”.

He said: “Many disabled people feel inhibited from coming forward to report disability-related harassment and when they do come forward their cases are not always recognised as disability-related crime by the police, the prosecutor, or both.”

He said the CPS had raised its game but there was “a lot more to do”.

Stephen Otter, chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police and the equality and diversity lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers, described the report as a “really important moment”.

He said the police needed the “same kind of learning” that occurred after the 1999 publication of the inquiry into how the police investigated the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

The report also suggests that the failure to include disabled people in society – including the history of forcing disabled people to live in institutions, and segregated employment and education – has helped to cause disability-related harassment.

The report offers seven “core recommendations”: the need for strong leadership; better data on the “scale, severity and nature” of harassment; a more accessible and responsive criminal justice system, including action on sentencing of disability-related crimes; better understanding of the motives of perpetrators; improved attitudes towards disabled people in society; research on how best to prevent and respond to harassment; and improved staff training.

The EHRC now aims to consult widely and produce a “manifesto for change” next spring, which will outline the steps agencies are taking and the outcomes the commission expects to see over five years.

It has already laid out measures it believes should be taken by individual public bodies, such as the police, the CPS, the courts, schools, local authorities, health services, housing and transport providers.

There are also recommendations for government departments, including the Office for Disability Issues, the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Department for Education, and departments in the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.

Although there was disappointment expressed by disabled activists at the failure of a government minister to attend the launch, the EHRC insisted that it had decided two months ago not to invite any ministers in order to ensure the event was “non-political”.

Meanwhile, MPs and peers on the all party parliamentary disability group (APPDG) have pledged to push for a parliamentary debate on the report.

Anne McGuire MP, the APPDG co-chair, said she would seek a debate after author and campaigner Katharine Quarmby told a joint meeting of the APPDG and the parliamentary learning disability group that she believed there had never been a full parliamentary debate on disability hate crime.

Quarmby talked in the meeting about her new book Scapegoat, which investigates some of the most shocking disability hate crimes of recent years.

12 September 2011

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