22 Oct 2012

‘Disability hate crime happened to me’

Philippa Willitts, a disabled writer from South Yorkshire, blogs for Channel 4 News on what it feels like to be a victim of disability hate crime.

'Frightening': A first-hand story of disability hate crime

Disability hate crimes can range from verbal abuse to murder, and include everything in between. They have been rising steeply over the last few years, with 2011 – the most recent statistics – being the highest since records began.

Yet, we have also recently hosted an incredibly successful Paralympic Games, where public interest in disability sport exceeded all expectations. Is it possible that the success of the Paralympics will make a notable difference to how disabled people are treated? And if so, how long might it last?

I reported a disability hate crime last year after a man followed me home shouting, “F*****g DLA stick” at me repeatedly. He was referring to the crutch that helps me to walk, and suggesting – well, yelling – that I was faking disability to receive benefits, in this case disability living allowance (DLA).

It was intimidating, frightening and humiliating.

It was intimidating, frightening and humiliating, and police statistics show that this was one of only seven reported disability hate crimes in my county. While I would like to believe that that is because South Yorkshire is an accepting, friendly type of place, I can only assume it is that vast numbers of these incidents are not reported.

Conviction and reporting rates vary vastly depending on where in the country the alleged crimes take place. South Yorkshire had three convictions in 2011, out of seven reported disability hate crimes while Suffolk had four convictions out of 152 reported crimes.

Living in an unsafe world

Prior to the incident above I had never experienced anything like that related to my disability. Homophobic abuse, yes. Misogynist abuse, yes. But never disablist abuse. Since then, however, I have lost count of the number of times “scrounger” is mumbled at me or at a fellow disabled person.

While this in itself does not constitute a crime, it contributes to a growing sense of living in an unsafe world. Buoyed on by the “scrounger rhetoric” propagated by some tabloids, and government cuts which are leaving many disabled people without any support, people who should know better are blaming disabled benefit claimants for all the country’s ills.

A legacy to stand on? Read more in the Channel 4 News special report

Thankfully, it seems that the coverage of the Paralympic Games has had a positive impact on how disabled people are perceived. A Channel 4 poll recently found that four out of five of viewers believed that the coverage of the Paralympics would affect how society perceives disabled people, while two in three reported that it had had a positive effect on their own attitudes towards disabled people and disability sport.

This sounds promising but it is sadly coming from a very low baseline. A survey by Scope in 2011 found that half of disabled people say they experience discrimination on either a daily or weekly basis, and a BT survey found that 38 per cent of people viewed us as a burden on society.

These attitudes are what allow disability hate crimes to take place unchallenged, and give us a world where Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her disabled daughter, Francecca, after years of disablist abuse which was ignored by police. A world where Gemma Hayter could be tortured and murdered by people she thought were her friends. And a world where Kenneth Oakes could be regularly beaten until he died with 43 rib fractures.

I would like to think that the legacy of the 2012 Paralympic Games would be a society where discrimination, prejudice and abuse are so rare that it is actually remarkable when it does occur. Instead, I fear that the continuing government cuts, and the tabloid “benefit fraud” narrative will continue to fuel unjustified suspicion, anger and hatred towards disabled people in the UK.