Disabled people have raised serious concerns about the rising tide of coronavirus-related disability hate crime, amid fears that this could increase even further when new laws on the wearing of face coverings go live tomorrow.
From tomorrow (Friday), it will be compulsory to wear a face covering in shops and supermarkets in England.
Many disabled people are exempt, the government has made clear.
But despite those exemptions, many disabled people who cannot wear face coverings have already been subjected to disability-related hostility online and while travelling on public transport, where it is already compulsory – except for those with exemptions – to wear a face covering.
Stephen Brookes, a former coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and now an ambassador for Disability Rights UK, has written to key figures in government, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and disability organisations about his concerns on “mask hostility”.
He says in his letter: “In my 12 years of dealing with disability hate crime up to June 2018, it was clear that abuse of disabled people has always been problematic at times of tension, but we are now in uncharted territory, which is supported by examples we are seeing at all levels.”
Brookes (pictured, left), who is also the minister for disabled people’s rail sector champion, although he was not speaking in that capacity, added: “We must both re-assure and support disabled people in terms of real hostility and remind perpetrators that verbal abuse can still be recognised as a potential hate crime and as such will not be tolerated.
“Can we all take stock and ensure that disabled people are not bullied out of any normal life we should be able to expect, and remind the public and those who affect our lives that the added pressure of fear should not be added to an already difficult situation.”
He has also now raised concerns about comments made during a radio interview yesterday (Wednesday) by the Metropolitan police’s commissioner, Cressida Dick.
Asked about customers who were refusing to wear masks in shops, she told LBC: “My hope is that the vast majority of people will comply, and that people who are not complying will be shamed into complying or shamed to leave the store by the store keepers or by other members of the public.”
Brookes said: “This statement by Met chief Cressida Dick is most seriously unhelpful, and potentially could lead to hostility and hate crime against those who can’t wear face masks.
“She needs to change and clarify that view most urgently.”
Last week, Fazilet Hadi (pictured, centre), head of policy for Disability Rights UK, called on the government to recognise the need for “balanced messaging” on face coverings, including “that some disabled people cannot wear face coverings and that this should be respected”.
She told the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, in a letter: “If the messaging doesn’t change, millions of disabled people will not be able to safely leave their homes.
“For those of us that do, we will experience fear, anxiety, possible conflict with public and police and demands to prove our impairment/illness.”
Inclusion London is the lead organisation for the London DDPO Hate Crime Partnership, working with 20 Deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) across the capital.
During the coronavirus crisis, it has been running a weekly survey of DDPOs that run hate crime advocacy services on the incidence and types of hate crime disabled people have experienced during lockdown, and now it is being eased.
Its latest weekly survey found 62 per cent of DDPOs reported an increase in disability hate crime referrals on the previous week.
Among the trends, Inclusion London has seen a rise in disability hate crime by neighbours of disabled people, and an increase in cases of disabled people being spat at while out in public because of the mistaken idea that disabled people are “virus spreaders”.
There has also been an increase in online hate crime, with disabled people “told that their lives are inferior and [that they] are taking up resources from non-disabled people”.
Disabled people have also reported being targeted while shopping if they have personal assistants or carers with them or if they need priority in shopping queues.
Inclusion London said: “Disability hate crime during the coronavirus pandemic has not come from nowhere – the image of disabled people as virus spreaders and taking resources from non-disabled people must be tackled.”
It added: “The core belief that disabled people’s lives are of less value than non-disabled people must be continually challenged through working closely with DDPOs.”
Another to have become concerned about online disability hate crime is disabled campaigner Victoria Langley.
She said she had been told on social media that disabled people like her should be locked inside until there was a vaccine because they “are more likely to catch it and pass it on”.
One nurse told her on Instagram that all those not wearing masks should be forced to sign away their rights to health equipment and treatment by health professionals who are “risking their lives because of you”.
Another woman told her on Instagram: “Trees are awesome and worth sobbing over.
“Bus drivers getting killed because they’re doing their job are worth sobbing over, people who don’t wear a mask because they are disabled, not worth sobbing for.
“I looked at your profile, you seemed fine???”
Langley said she found the widespread hostile comments on social media “scary” as a disabled person.
She said: “It’s made me petrified to go out.
“I’m scared to go out because people are not just being hostile, they do not care that being disabled makes it hard.
“I feel totally scared and boxed in with zero support.
“The government are ending all support and saying go out, but the general public want us locked in. I feel helpless and scared.”
Disabled researcher, author and campaigner David Wilkin (pictured, right) has been collecting examples of disabled people who have been subjected to disability-related hostility linked to the government’s COVID-19 regulations.
Wilkin, the lead coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, has already collected more than 50 such cases.
One disabled passenger on public transport, who cannot wear a face covering, was targeted by another passenger, who shouted: “This person hasn’t got a mask. This person is trying to infect us. They are trying to kill us.”
A disabled train passenger who did not have a face mask because of breathing difficulties was confronted by another passenger, who refused to listen to their explanation, took a spare mask out of their pocket and forced them to put it on.
Wilkin said: “They were under so much pressure that they put the face mask on and left the train.
“They felt that was the only way to placate the offender.”
Wilkin said he was concerned there would be further cases when the ban in shops and supermarkets comes into force tomorrow.
He said: “It’s definitely a concern. It’s bad enough to be grounded because you don’t want to use public transport, but you have to eat.
“The general concern is that the government, while they have delivered clear messages about face coverings… are not making the same number of messages about the exemptions.
“That is causing real problems.”
But he said he believed the government and public bodies were listening, as he has online meetings next week with both the Cabinet Office and CPS.
A CPS spokesperson told Disability News Service (DNS): “The law exempts those who cannot put on or wear a face covering because of physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability while using public transport.
“The same exemption will apply when face coverings become mandatory in shops.
“Our updated guidance to prosecutors will make this clear.
“If disabled people are victims of hate crime as a result then the CPS won’t hesitate to prosecute perpetrators if our legal test is met.”
Deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton, hate crime lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, told DNS in a statement: “We understand that many disabled people, and particularly those with ‘hidden’ disabilities, could be worried about being challenged by others if they are not wearing face coverings in a setting that requires it.
“Government guidelines set out a number of exemptions to the wearing of masks, including on grounds of disability.
“Some external organisations have developed ways to indicate that an individual is exempt, such as wearing badges.
“The government and the police have developed extensive guidance on these requirements, and police officers across the country have received training on how to recognise where an individual may have an exemption due to disability.”
He added: “Any disabled person who is victim of hate crime should report it to the police by either calling 999 (in an emergency) or 101.
“Additionally, you can report crime online at True Vision (report-it.org.uk). True Vision also contains helpful information and guidance materials on disability hate crime and COVID-19.”
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