British Transport Police Officer, BTP, from the back next to a police cordon in Manchester.
According to Mencap, there are around 1.4 million people who live with a learning disability in the UK. However, sadly, research released by charity Dimensions has revealed that this community still face the brunt of negative attitudes towards them in society, and are victim to discriminatory behaviour on a daily basis.
Commissioned to mark Hate Crime Awareness Week this year, the survey of 2,000 Brits has shown that tolerance towards people living with learning disabilities in the UK is worryingly low. For example, it revealed that 1 in 6 of us would feel uncomfortable sitting next to someone with a learning disability on public transport, and 1 in 7 would feel uncomfortable if they were our neighbour. And although we like to think inaccurate stereotypes and a lack of tolerance are the tropes of past generations, the report found that, unexpectedly, younger people tend to have more negative views.
1 in 5 people under 35 admitted to having laughed at someone, called someone a name or avoided talking to someone completely because of their learning disability. If it couldn’t get any worse, 6% admitted that they’ve even physically hurt someone in the past, with their disability being the reason for their violence.
“Our research sends a clear message – our society is failing people with learning disabilities and autism,” Rachael Dodgson, Chief Executive of Dimensions says. “Imagine feeling unsafe every time you leave your home or interact with others – this is the unacceptable reality for many.”
However, referencing the findings that 1 in 4 regret how they’ve behaved in the past and that 30% think society has become less inclusive for people with learning disabilities, Dodgson says there’s hope. “It’s encouraging that a significant portion of the public are aware that their previous actions have fallen short.”
“It was scary”
Linda* is mother to Andy*, an autistic man with a mild learning disability. “If his environment isn’t peaceful, predictable or planned he can hurt himself,” Linda says. “He’s a big man, albeit a gentle giant, with little control over his facial expressions, who has faced hate incidents throughout his life.”
Linda says the incidents range in severity, but have all impacted Andy negatively. “The young people who would pull his trousers down in public. The fellow students who, knowing he needs things arranged just so, would delight in rearranging them. The neighbour whose malicious 999 calls led to him being repeatedly stopped, twice by firearms officers, for no reason. The person who attacked him for ‘looking at him funny’.”
Lisa explains that the psychological abuse Andy has suffered over the years has left him needing long-term mental health support. “It made him nocturnal – he sleeps in the day and goes out only in the quiet of the night. He’s become terrified of the police. And as for that neighbour – they won; he’s been rehoused.”
Mark Brookes works at Dimensions as a Campaign Advisor and lives with a learning disability. He recalls one incident from a few years ago that left him feeling nervous about being alone in public. “I was walking back from work and I heard a vehicle revving up and some guys started shouting,” he says. “At first, they were being friendly, but then they started calling me names like ‘fatto’ and ‘four eyes’”.
Brookes says he continued to walk home and tried to ignore the comments.
“Next thing I knew, something hit me. They carried on calling me names and then drove off.” Once he got home, Brookes realised that the men had thrown an egg at him. “I’m usually pretty confident with travelling and I can get myself out and about, but it was scary.” He says he now makes sure he doesn’t travel too late, makes sure he has his phone on his person and won’t get on an empty tube carriage.
“We need to be listened to and taken seriously”
Hate crimes against a number of minority communities have been steadily increasing over the last few years. Hate crimes against people living with disabilities between 2021 and 2022 increased by 25% from the previous year, and incidents against ethnic minorities (19%) and transgender people (11%) have also risen – and those are only the ones that are reported.
In the case of hate crimes against disabled people, only 1% of hate crimes reported to the police resulted in a charge or a CPS referral – which is far too low.
To tackle this, alongside charities including Leonard Cheshire and United Response, Dimensions is urging the government to reverse its decision to merge an anti-hate crime strategy into a wider plan to tackle general crime. Instead, they’re hoping for the government to develop a specialised, bespoke hate crime strategy.
In addition to this, Leonard Cheshire’s website offers a cross-government approach it would like to see embraced to tackle disability hate crime:
“The government should roll out its promised awareness-raising campaign around disability as a priority with a view to educating the public on disability hate crimes and the importance of community when reporting it.
“The government should ensure that the Online Safety Bill provides clear parameters to help challenge disability-related abuse happening online when this bill is published.
“The government should adopt recommendation 12 of the Law Commission’s Hate Crime Report to widen the scope of aggravated offences to include disability-related hostility and strengthen the legal response when addressing disabled people’s abuse and exploitation.
“We would like to see a government-funded pilot training programme on supporting disabled crime victims for police officers with five police forces in England. The training will be developed and delivered by experts by experience and will be piloted in areas where there is both low reporting and charging and sentencing for disability hate crimes.
“It should also invest in a ring-fenced fund dedicated to providing State support for disabled people and their families to help navigate the criminal justice system, alongside similar grants allocated to advocacy and community groups.
“Finally, it should invest in the establishment, promotion, and rollout of a pilot helpline for victims of disability hate crimes, akin to crisis services used by victims of homophobia and sexual assault.”
When approached for comment, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Hate crime, including disability hate crime, is a scourge on communities across the country and does not reflect the values of modern Britain.”
“We expect the police to take these abhorrent crimes extremely seriously and work with the CPS to ensure perpetrators are prosecuted and victims receive justice.” They point to recruiting 20,000 more police officers by March 2023 and the establishment of True Vision – an online hate crime reporting portal – as steps they’re taking to combat hate crime.
“For too long, people with learning disabilities and autism like myself have had to live in fear of being targeted simply because of our disability,” Brookes says. “When I hear stories of hate crime and abuse, I feel awful and sad.”
“We have to keep pushing and going until this stops,” he continues. “We need to be listened to and taken seriously, and we have to work together to change people’s attitudes and to support people to report a hate crime.”
Help and support:
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).