Why don’t we recognise Disability Hate Crime?

Why don’t we recognise Disability Hate Crime for what it is?

Jane Healy, Middlesex University


I’ve been working on a PhD on disability hate crime since 2009 and although it has become a developing area, our understanding of it remains in its infancy and the numbers of academic researchers pursuing this topic, whilst increasing, remain small.  During this period I’ve conducted focus groups, interviews and an online survey with victims of disability hate crimes and (along with other academics) I’ve noted some unique – or at least nuanced – features that occur within disability-specific hate crimes, when comparing it with other strands. I think that these features, which are particular to disability hate, have made it more difficult to recognise, respond to, and report disability hate crimes, meaning the figures may remain low for years to come and potentially making a true picture of disablist crime an impossibility.

The misleading image of the stranger

The image of the hate crime perpetrator as stranger is a dominant one, despite research telling us that few crimes are committed by absolute strangers (e.g. Roberts et al, 2013; Mason, 2005). While this is true for all types of hate crimes, the literature – and my own research – appears to suggest that disability-related crimes are more likely than other strands to involve someone known to the victim (e.g. Action for Blind People, 2008; DRC 2004; Scope, 2011). Indeed, my findings have identified perpetrators as both ‘stranger’ (a complete unknown) and ‘familiar’ (such as a neighbour).  However, if a relationship exists between offender and victim, it is less likely to be recognised as a hate crime, which has implications for potential prosecution of disability cases. And unfortunately, in many cases of disability hate crime the relationship goes further than just someone ‘known’ to the victim, such as a neighbour, and may be one of friends, family members or carers (Roulstone & Mason-Bish, 2013; Chakraborti & Garland, 2009). As a consequence, victims are less likely to report offences from someone they know, as issues of dependency and unequal power relations can come into play (Sin and colleagues, 2009b).

The ‘groomed’ victim

Disability hate crime has identified new forms of incident and offences where perpetrators groom their disabled victims by developing a ‘friendship’ or dependent relationship with them. Usually referred to as ‘mate crime’, this occurs most frequently for those with learning disabilities. It’s thought to happen because some disabled people are isolated from those who care about them, leading to a desire for relationships, friends and company (Thomas, 2013). The so-called ‘friendship’ that is developed can lead to confusion, however, in that it can appear the abuse is consensual, and victims can be reluctant to report their experiences, as they may have few other friends. They even report ‘positive’ pay offs in some cases, such as a social life and companionship.  Landman (2014) cites ‘known, trusted’ perpetrators in many cases of mate crime involving people with learning disabilities, meaning the abuse is highly unlikely to be reported, or recognised, as hate crime.

A hidden crime

Linked to the previous point, it’s noteworthy that, whereas, say, religious hate attacks can often represent an attack on a community (for example targeting a mosque; e.g. Dodd, 2013), and one which has a limited capacity to respond, disabled people are often isolated, not part of a community, and have little opportunity to respond (Thomas, 2013). In addition to this, they can be targeted by opportunistic acts of hostility, which may not be criminal but have psychological and emotional consequences. Certain offences can also occur in private, such as residential homes (Mason-Bish, 2013), making it more difficult to recognise and report incidents. These elements combine to make recognising and reporting of disability hate crimes ever more challenging.

Increased likelihood of extreme abuse, violence and sexual assault

A distressing finding from research into disability hate crime suggests that torture, degradation and exploitation are common to many cases.  Although disablist offences can and do involve theft or vandalism, a significant proportion is ‘particularly sadistic’ and some result in the death of the victim (Sherry, 2013). Sexual degradation, rape and dehumanisation is often present and disabled people are more likely to experience sustained attacks involving excessive violence, cruelty, humiliation and degrading treatment, often related to their disability (e.g. see CPS, 2010b; Action for Blind People, 2008; Khalifeh and colleagues, 2013; Pettitt and colleagues, 2013). The level of dehumanisation and humiliation experienced by disability hate crimes victims appears to be over and above that reported by other strands.

Barriers to reporting

Added to all of the points above is the very practical barrier of accessing the police service. Because of the nature of certain disabilities, victims may have difficulty getting to, into and out of police buildings, or even simply being understood; again, not usually something that occurs with other strands.  Apart from the practicalities of accessing buildings, many victims also report having poor previous experience with the police, often because of negative stereotypes; in particular, those with mental health conditions or learning disabilities (Sin, 2015).  Overall, I and other researchers have found victims disappointed with previous police responses, which is often linked to lack of disability awareness generally. Many had low expectations of any form of response (Action for Blind People, 2008; Vincent et al, 2009; ECDP, 2010; Sin, 2013).

The ‘vulnerability’ trap

Lastly, a word about vulnerability.  This is a contentious term within disablist hate debates as there is a distinct difference between disability and the other strands when it comes to describing or perceiving victims as ‘vulnerable’. Mason-Bish (2013) rightly points out that “one of the key barriers to correctly identifying disability hate crime lies in the perceived difference between hatred and vulnerability” (p15). However, the debate about vulnerability versus hatred is a crucial one as current law sees hate crime as distinct to crimes targeted at those perceived to be ‘vulnerable’. Thus if a crime is perceived as involving a ‘vulnerable’ victim, the potential for establishing a hate motivation is severely reduced. As many of those who experience hate crime are obviously and visibly disabled or are known to their attackers as having an impairment, a challenge has been the existing inherent legal contradiction between constructions of hate (or hostility) and vulnerability (Roulstone & Sadique, 2013). And a construction of disabled people as vulnerable has weakened rather than strengthened the movement towards hate crime provisions. Whilst some scholars would argue that ‘vulnerability’ and ‘difference’ are central to hate crime (e.g. Chakraborti & Garland, 2012), the term vulnerability has connotations of weakness.  Furthermore, situations where victims are presented as ‘vulnerable’ may not be taken as seriously or may be interpreted as safe-guarding or adult protection issues (instead of criminal), leaving victims open to further abuse and denying them the right to be taken seriously (Roulstone & Sadique, 2013). The risk of repeat offences is arguably greater in a social care rather than criminal justice response.

So the obstacles to increasing reporting of disablist crimes remain. We need to challenge existing stereotypes around vulnerability and certain forms of disability and impairments. We need to improve access to reporting stations. We must encourage more victims to report offences committed by those close to them, a particular problem because of the relationships, degradation and exploitation that occur. Until this is achieved, I fear we will continue to see limited success in disability hate crime cases.

WORDS: 1,221



Action for Blind People (2008) Report on Verbal and Physical Abuse Towards Blind and Partially Sighted People Across the UK. London: Action for Blind People. http.www.actionforblindpeople.org.uk/abuse-survey,484,SA.html   Accessed 15/02/2011.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) (2010) Guidance on the distinction between vulnerability and hostility in the context of crimes committed against disabled people. 17March 2010.  From: http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/d_to_g/disability_hate_crime_/#content Accessed on 03/01/12.

Chakraborti, N.  & Garland, J. (2009) Hate Crime: Impact, Causes, Consequences. London: Sage

Chakraborti, N. & Garland, J. (2012) Reconceptualizing hate crime victimization through the lens of vulnerability and ‘difference’. Theoretical Criminology 16(4): 499-514

Disability Rights Commission & Capability Scotland (DRC) (2004) Hate Crime against Disabled People in Scotland: A survey report. Manchester: Disability Rights Commission and Edinburgh: Capability Scotland

Dodd, V. (21.10.2013) Student pleads guilty to attack on Midlands mosque. The Guardian Online. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/oct/21/ukrainian-pleads-guilty-attacks-midland-mosques  Accessed on 08.12.14.

ECDP (2010) Disability Hate Crime: Discussion Paper. Downloaded from:  http://www.ecdp.org.uk/home/2010/4/16/disability-hate-crime-an-ecdp-discussion-paper.html  Accessed on 01/12/2010

Khalifeh, H., Howard, L., Osborn, D., Moran, P., & Johnson, S. (2013). Violence against people with disability in England and Wales: findings from a national cross-sectional survey. PL o S One , 8(2), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055952. Downloaded on 14/10/14.

Landman, R. (2014) ‘A counterfeit friendship’: Mate Crime and People with Learning Disabilities.  Journal of Adult Protection; in press.

Mason-Bish, H. (2013) Conceptual issues in the construction of disability hate crime, in Roulstone & Mason-Bish, H. (Eds). Disability, Hate Crime and Violence pp11-24. London: Routledge

Mason, G. (2005) Hate Crime and the Image of the Stranger. British Journal of Criminology 45 (6): 837-859.

Pettitt, B., Greenhead, S., Khalifeh, H., Drennan, V., Hart, T., Hogg, J., Borschmann, R., Mamo, E. & Moran, P. (2013) At risk, yet dismissed: The criminal victimisation of people with mental health problems. London: Victim Support & Mind.

Roberts, C., Innes, M., Williams, M., Tregidga, J. & Gadd, D. (2013) Understanding who commits hate crime and why they do it.  Welsh Government Social Research No 38/2013.

Roulstone & Mason-Bish, H. (2013) (Eds). Disability, Hate Crime and Violence. London: Routledge

Roulstone, A. & Sadique, K. (2013) Vulnerable to misinterpretation: Disabled people, ‘vulnerability’, hate crime and the fight for legal recognition, in Roulstone & Mason-Bish, H. (Eds). Disability, Hate Crime and Violence pp25-39. London: Routledge

Scope (2011) Deteriorating attitudes towards disabled people.  http://www.scope.org.uk/news/attitudes-towards-disabled-people-survey   Accessed on 19/05/11.

Sherry, M. (2013) International perspectives on disability hate crime, in Roulstone & Mason-Bish, H. (Eds). Disability, Hate Crime and Violence pp80-91. London: Routledge

Sin, C. H. (2013) Making disablist hate crime visible: Addressing the challenges of improving reporting, in Roulstone & Mason-Bish, H. (Eds). Disability, Hate Crime and Violence pp147-165. London: Routledge

Sin, C. H. (2015) Hate crime against people with disabilities, in Hall, N., Corb, A., Giannasi, P. & Grieve, J.G.D. (2015) (Eds) The Routledge International Handbook on Hate Crime, pp193-206. Oxon: Routledge

Sin, C H., Hedges, A., Cook, C., Mguni, N. & Comber, N. (2009a) Disabled people’s experiences of targeted violence and hostility.  EHRC Research Report 21. EHRC & Office for Public Management

Thomas, P. (2013) Hate crime or mate crime: Disablist hostility, contempt and ridicule, in Roulstone & Mason-Bish, H. (Eds). Disability, Hate Crime and Violence pp135-146. London: Routledge

Vincent, F.; Radford, K.; Jarman, N.; Martynowicz, A. and Rallings, M.-K. (2009) Hate Crime against People with Disabilities: A baseline study of experiences in Northern Ireland http://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/hate_crime_against_people_with_disabilities__pdf_760kb_.pdf Downloaded on 01/04/2011



6 comments on “Why don’t we recognise Disability Hate Crime?

  1. Teresa Miller

    So true!
    I was infected by a jerk who had a dog that had fleas. I have ended up with parasites. I am SMi and visually impaired. I value my freedom and independence. I found not allow myself to get admitted or jailed.

  2. Jane Healy

    Teresa, I am very sorry to hear of your experiences. I hope you can report it to the police, and that they respond to it seriously. Kind regards. Jane

  3. Paul Dodenhoff

    I became a part time PhD student in the motivation behind disability hate crime in 2012, basically as I felt nobody was touching upon this subject. I’m not disabled, but had a number of personal reasons why this also interested me. I’ve now put my project on hold due to a lack of funding.

    I felt the project could have made strong in-roads into building a theory that explains why some people are drawn towards such acts. However, despite the recognised potentional of the reseach I felt there was very little interest in what I was doing, not just academically and politically, but from disability orientated charities themselves.

    It was not just a lack of interest, but often open hostility. Which really opens up the question of why? Because of this, I write frequently for Disabled-World on the topic, just to get my on-going research ‘out there’. PhD or no PhD.

    It seems that anybody doing anything on disability hate crime, may come up against a society that doesn’t really want anybody to highlight that we have a massive problem here within the UK.

  4. We don’t recognize it because we don’t take aggressive action towards prosecution of these bum monsters who abuse this needy population. Nor do we take the time to champion better laws to protect people with special challenges. You can start here by signing this petition a mother put up after her autistic son was abused by an evil nurse. https://www.change.org/p/california-state-senate-don-t-allow-convicted-felons-who-abuse-our-most-vulnerable-citizens-to-hide-criminal-past

  5. Goatscape

    Societies’ desires to render disability hate crime (DHC) invisible by silencing any discussion of the topic is a case study in the syntax of ableism. But that is precisely why it must be pressed as an issue of urgent public concern, so that when egregious DHCs occur, they are both recognized & prosecuted as such. Unless their is parity with the stigma of offending, diligence of investigation, vigor of prosecution, severity of sentencing, and outrage by the public comparable to HCs committed based on race or religion, societies must deal with being made uncomfortable.

    No major wave of a civil rights movement ever succeed merely by asking politely and not ruffling feathers. Perhaps the biggest issue with disability NGOs are that few are necessarily managed by PWD themselves, so emerging formations like Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) reviving “nothing about us without us” are encouraging. While actions such as the 5 April 1977 occupation of the Federal Building in San Francisco by a pan-disability coalition won the implementation of legal rights (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) in the US, and shored up the essential Independent Living Center movement, such cross-condition thinking amongst PWD has been challenging to maintain between campaigns, such as the subsequent ADA 1990 & IDEA ones. Connecting through web fora seems to be fostering a resurgence, esp. as public programs are assaulted by neoliberal austerity policies & the ideology’s mythology, but the self-stigma of identifying with the label often remains deferred until no longer tenable.

    What I believe you observe in the institutional unwillingness of established disability NGOs, called non-profits or foundations in the US, is that often they are both siloed by condition(s), and effective not-for-profit enterprises with narrow missions. Sometimes these are based on articles of incorporation qualifying them for 501(c) tax-exempt status for advocacy & direct-service NGOs, additionally by stipulations of donor intent and/or endowment (investment) management, particularly for grant-making foundations.

    Not only are recognizing the ochlarcic & terroristic effects of DHCs necessary in the UK, but especially in the US, where prior to the Chicago Facebook Live incident, the mainstream national press adamantly refused to cover the many prior incidents as such. One advantage in tracking DHC statistics the UK has over the US is the centralization of criminal prosecution under the CPS, whereas all HC stats in the US tracked by FBI/DOJ pertain to federal cases, and the states, counties, and municipalities which even do track such figures do not aggregate them nationally annually.

    California has some of the most inclusive definitions of disability in the US, and has a strong tendency toward protection of civil liberties in the state’s cultural DNA. San Francisco even protects recipients of public benefits from discriminations under municipal (civil) ordinance. Lobbying prosecutors in metro & coastal CA (esp.) to attach DHC enhancements in each case they apply could be an effective advocacy front permitting a parallel public education campaign, and the state Office of the Attorney General had a solid record under now-junior Senator Kamala Harris.

    Further, California state cyber law is likely the most robust in the world, claiming jurisdiction over crimes with a perpetrator, victim, server, hosting platform, or constituent act physically within it. Wealthy Americans have been hopping the pond for libel tourism in the UK, so I see no reason why Britons with disabilities experiencing cyber (web-mediated) harassment and/or stalking should not do the same.


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