An inquiry by a committee of MPs has revealed the “horrendous, degrading and dehumanising” abuse that disabled people are exposed to when they use the internet.
The inquiry heard from disabled people who face abuse not just on social media but also through online games, web forums, and comments on news stories on media websites.
The House of Commons petitions committee has now published its final report on this abuse, and has concluded that self-regulation of social media has failed disabled people.
The inquiry was launched in response to a petition set up by former model Katie Price, which was signed by more than 220,000 people and followed years of disablist and racist abuse targeted at her teenage son, Harvey.
The committee was repeatedly told during its inquiry of the widespread use of offensive slurs such as “retard”, “mong” and “spastic”.
It heard of the frequent use of photographs of disabled people with visible impairments, particularly disabled children, to create internet memes (images or videos created to be shared widely online, particularly via social media).
Disabled people who use the internet said they were told that they should not have been born, were asked if they thought they should have been aborted, and were told they would be better off dead.
The disabled writer and performer Penny Pepper told the committee: “I’ve been called an ‘it’ many times – ‘What is IT doing?’… I’ve had remarks about how I look in my wheelchair, and a few times the statements, ‘You should have been aborted’, and, ‘You don’t deserve to live’.”
Many disabled people have been accused of benefit fraud and threatened with being reported to the Department for Work and Pensions after posting images online of themselves outside their homes or while involved in political activism, the committee heard.
Some had even been targeted by strangers attempting to obtain their confidential medical information in order to try to prove that they are guilty of benefit fraud.
If they have refused to provide this evidence, it is taken as proof of fraud and they are seen as “deserving of abuse and harassment”.
Inclusion London, which gave evidence in person to the inquiry through its chair Anne Novis (pictured giving evidence), also provided the committee with multiple links to Facebook pages that had been set up to try to expose disabled people as benefit frauds.
Some disabled people were asked for explicit photographs, the committee heard, “with the implication that disabled women, in particular, should be grateful for the attention” and could therefore be abused if they refused to provide such images.
The committee also heard from people with learning difficulties who had been targeted for the purposes of sexual or financial exploitation on social media and online dating sites.
The committee produced a series of draft recommendations last year, and then carried out a lengthy public consultation, the first select committee to do this, with events in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Many of those who took part in the consultation spoke of a culture of “demonising” disabled people, while the “hostile language” linked to benefits and the use of blue parking badges was mentioned at all these events.
Inclusion London told the committee in written evidence: “Disabled people have reported increasing levels of both online and offline abuse since 2010 targeted around an idea of disabled people as ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘fraudsters’.
“This is a direct result of public attitudes being affected by statements made by politicians about fraud in the disability benefits system relentlessly amplified in the media.”
The report says the committee heard from many disabled people who had repeatedly abandoned their online profiles because of the abuse they had experienced.
One disabled participant at the committee’s Newcastle consultation event said she was currently on her 17th Facebook account.
The report says: “For many, repeatedly having to change contact details leads to damaged career prospects, depleted social support and greater social isolation.
“We heard from others, in person and online, who felt that it was too risky to reveal that they were disabled due to worries about their employment prospects and the abuse they might attract.”
The report also warns that online abuse can be “a life or death issue” for some disabled people.
It says: “Its effects are felt not only in damaged physical and mental health, but in lost career opportunities and a restricted social life.”
The report includes a list of recommendations for government and social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Google (see separate story).
Helen Jones, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “Our inquiry into online abuse and the experience of disabled people has shown that social media is rife with horrendous, degrading and dehumanising comments about people with disabilities.
“The law on online abuse is not fit for purpose and it is truly shameful that disabled people have been forced off social media while their abusers face no consequences.
“There is no excuse for the continued failure to make online platforms as safe for disabled people.
“Self-regulation has failed disabled people and the law must change to ensure more lives are not destroyed.”
A government spokesperson said: “As part of the Online Harms White Paper we are bringing in new laws and reviewing existing ones to make the internet safer for everyone, including disabled people.”
The white paper is due to be published early this year.
The government also announced last October that the Law Commission has been asked to review current hate crime legislation – as the commission recommended four years ago in a heavily-criticised report – following concerns that it does not offer disabled and LGBT people equal protection to that given to other protected groups.
The review is likely to include examining the possible extension of aggravated offences – which have higher sentences but currently can only apply to crimes linked to race and religion – to disability, sexual orientation and transgender identity.
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