Why people should stop using disability hate crime for political ends

Last week the EHRC published an extremely helpful report on the incidence of disability hate crime from 2007/8 to 2011/12.  Based on analysis of the Crime Survey for England and Wales and the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey it estimates there to have been on average 72,000 disability hate crimes in each year.  This is higher than a previous estimate of 65,000 for 2010/11.  Critically however, it finds that there have been no statistically significant changes over time.  That is to say, according to these surveys, the incidence of disability hate crime has neither gone up nor down since 2007/8.  What has changed (for the better) are the numbers of such crimes reported to and recorded by the police and others, albeit not uniformly and with a considerable room for improvement.

Hence the widely misreported increase in recorded disability hate crime in 2012, attributed to ‘scrounger rhetoric’, was actually largely a sign of things (very marginally) improving: greater recognition of the phenomenon, increased confidence to report such crimes and improved practice by the police and partners.  Yet in an otherwise powerful piece in today’s Independent newspaper, Ian Birrell suggests again that ‘reported hate crime against people with disabilities is rising, fanned by rhetoric against “scroungers.”

Might we have expected the overall incidence of disability hate crime to have gone down for the same reasons?  Again, what looks like things failing to improve could in fact be the precise opposite.  The Crime Survey captures crimes that people may not bother to report because they think the crime was too trivial or the police couldn’t do much about it. A central finding of the research I commissioned for the EHRC prior to its Disability Harassment Inquiry was of people becoming conditioned to the hostility they experienced – that it had just become so much a part of their day to day life that they themselves had come to accept it.  More people reporting disability hate crime via the Crime Survey may suggest fewer people willing to accept such behaviours towards them, not an actual increase (or lack of a decrease) in incidence.

As for the role of ‘scrounger rhetoric’, one might wonder whether it has prevented a reduction in the incidence of disability hate crime that would otherwise have happened since May 2010? If this is the case, then by implication are we are saying that something else was causing all of the 72,000 such crimes each year before 2010/11 and then ‘scrounger rhetoric’ took over?  Or we are saying that such rhetoric has long been a contributory factor (lest we forget it was commonplace before the 2010 election) but that its increased intensity means it accounts for a greater proportion of disability hate crime and has staved off a drop in incidence?

Or are dots being joined to forge a political narrative? Are some seeking to liken the the government’s attitudes to and policy towards disabled people to disability hate crime? Or to suggest that government policy and rhetoric has legitimated and caused more disability hate crime?  Certainly that seems to be the subtext of Labour’s ‘Making Rights a Reality’ document and the way it was presented when launched.   The irony is that there would be no tactical advantage to Labour in making such a claim were it not for the fact that, despite the ‘scrounger rhetoric’, public support for disability benefits remains significantly higher than for welfare in the round.

Unfortunately we still know very little about the motivations of perpetrators of disability hate crime, and the construction of the law in this area is such that it doesn’t encourage perpetrators to tell us lest they prejudice their own situation.  However, what we do know about the nature of prejudice towards disabled people – prejudice which can manifest as hostility or abuse – is that typically it regards disabled people as vulnerable, weak or as having little value in society.  Prejudice towards disabled people may take a different shape to racism or homophobia, but it still fundamentally involves dehumanising the person or people who are its object.  This is why disability rights campaigners employed the slogan ‘piss on pity’, It’s why Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires governments to ‘promote the capabilities and contributions’ of disabled people.

It’s also why people need to be very careful to avoid re-enforcing such prejudices in the way they challenge government policy.  ‘Scrounger rhetoric’ may well add to hostility or provide greater opportunity for it to find expression, just as anti-immigration rhetoric can do so for racist incidents. It is both de-humanising and it invites and legitimates prejudice and hostility towards those receiving (or presumed to be receiving) State support.  But challenging it with language and ideas which – even with the best of intentions – inadvertently or deliberately paint disabled people as helpless, vulnerable victims in need of being rescued isn’t fighting fire with fire, it’s pouring fuel on it.

If people genuinely care about eliminating disability hate crime, they should think twice about using it as a political weapon in this way.

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2 thoughts on “Why people should stop using disability hate crime for political ends

  1. The problem with this argument is that disability itself is being used as a political weapon. Even if numbers of disability hate crimes have not significantly altered, there was clearly a change in the tone in which disability was addressed within the wider community and particularly in the media (itself documented in academic research) and politics, and that change drove a sub-hate-crime, but still inherently disablist narrative around disability – ‘they’re all at it’ (‘it’ being welfare fraud). ‘They’re all at it’ was practically the first thing out of Mike Penning’s mouth when he assumed the role of Minister for Disabled People last month, nor was it ever far from the mouths of his two predecessors in the role, Esther McVey and Maria Miller, nor their political masters IDS, Grayling, Freud and Hoban.

    To draw on personal experience for illustrative purposes (yes this is anecdote rather than evidence, but experiences I have seen reported time and time again by other disabled people), when three 50-somethings confronted me in the street yelling ‘This is the DWP, we know you’re faking, we know where you live’ (and yes, I used that incident when interviewed on disability hate crime in several media venues), that didn’t just cross the ACPO line for being regarded as a disability hate crime*, it demonstrated that the social narrative within which hate crimes are constructed and justified by those who commit them was being shaped by the scrounger rhetoric flowing out of the political levels of DWP and the editorial levels of Mail, Sun and Express (and to a lesser extent just about every other media source in the country bar the Guardian). At the sub-hate-crime level. for a bank employee to say to me within the context of a financial advice session ‘Well, I’ll accept your disability is genuine, but it’s everyone else who is the problem’, demonstrates a shift in the social acceptability of alleging overwhelmingly widespread disability benefit fraud to the point that it can be openly thrown in the face of a disabled person within an unrelated professional context, and thereby demonstrates a shift in the wider social acceptability of being a disabled person, or of being a disablist.

    So, while it may be the case that disability hate crime rates haven’t increased, that isn’t the same as saying that we shouldn’t address them as a political issue, because clearly scrounger rhetoric is being factored into the sociology of hate crime, and the wider sociology of disability, and countering that politicised rhetoric requires us to address it at a political level. I have always been clear that I have a problem with the way that all three major parties address disability, so have pretty much all the disability campaigners I know, that strikes me as a pretty healthy sign for the state of our ‘political weapon’.

    *Note that even as an active campaigner on disability rights and disability hate crime I still didn’t report these incidents: too stressful, too distressing, no belief that the police can address them, but a profound belief that maybe, just maybe, society can address them if we can drive the debate about disability hate crime into ‘normie’ society and not just crip-circles, and addressing the political drivers into disability hate crime is part and parcel of that, just as is addressing the societal drivers.

    • Hi David

      Many thanks for your comments, which raise some really important issues.

      I agree strongly that the roots of prejudice – prejudice which may manifest as disability – can be political (as well as social and cultural, and influenced by economics) and hence the is a strong political dimension to tackling prejudice. I also agree as I say in the blog that, like the influence of anti-immigration policy and rhetoric on racial prejudice, the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform may heighten or give vent to prejudice towards disabled people (and other people who are or who are presumed to be in receipt of State support of one kind or another).

      What I challenge is (a) campaigners, journalists and politicians saying the incidence of disability hate crime is rising because of scrounger rhetoric when it is not rising (b) the failure to consider the impact of the messaging in their own arguments which risk re-enforcing rather than genuinely challenging prejudice and (c) the failure to recognise how prejudice becomes rooted in the way society is organised and hence tackling prejudice requires more than just saying the right thing – it demands deep reform of culture, policies and practices including of the benefit system.

      Campaigns which imply that government policy is akin to disability hate crime, or certainly responsible for it are at the same time employing narratives which characterise disabled (and sick) people as intrinsically vulnerable, and which are focused on maintaining the most paternalistic features of the welfare state. That is to say, they themselves are seeking, albeit inadvertently, to defend those things which feed prejudice. That’s because the goal of this narrative is not to engender respect for disabled people’s rights, but to seek pity, and pity as we know is at the root of much of the prejudice disabled people face, and can spill over into hostility.

      None of this is to defend ‘scrounger rhetoric’, or to say is has no influence or that government has no responsibilities. Rather it is to say that we need to think carefully about the sort of narrative and the changes necessary in our society that would genuinely help uproot prejudice.

      What’s more, Government itself cannot commit ‘disability hate crime’ and hence be held directly responsible for it. The issues at play would be much better approached through the lens of s149 Equality Act 2010 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/149) which requires public authorities to have due regard to the need to tackle prejudice and promote understanding (and in relation to Article 8 of the UNCRPD). This has not yet been employed to challenge government regarding its messages or use of statistics and the negative effect they may have.

      Best wishes, Neil

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