Ahead of the Paralympics, figures reveal disability hate crime is at its highest level, yet few incidents are reported and fewer perpetrators convicted.
It was karaoke night at the Weaver’s Arms when Chantelle Richardson was attacked by a stranger because of her disability. The 23-year-old, whose face has been disfigured since she was 14, had already left one pub that night after comments about her condition. Now drinking with mates at her local in Oldham, it happened again.
“Is your friend wearing a mask?” said the woman who’d just stopped singing as one of Richardson’s pals approached the mike. “Your friend’s face is disgusting.” The woman repeatedly told Richardson: “Take off your mask,” before punching her in the face. The blow was so strong it could have been fatal and left Richardson hospitalised for weeks. For months, she was depressed and afraid to go out in public. Her attacker, brought to court in March last year, was sentenced to eight months in prison.
Richardson’s story is shocking, but it is not unique. Disability hate crimes are under-reported by the media, and under-investigated by the police. But it’s a problem that is getting worse not just behind closed doors, as happened at the private care home Winterbourne View, near Bristol, but on streets and in public spaces across Britain.
In a fortnight London hosts the Paralympics where the sporting achievements of more than a thousand disabled athletes will be rightly celebrated. But beyond the Olympic Park a more unpalatable view of how Britain treats people with disabilities exists, where disability hate crime is at its highest level ever recorded. In 2011, there were close on 2,000 recorded disability hate crimes in England and Wales, double the number in 2008 when records began.
In March, the Home Office estimated that 65,000 disability hate crimes occur each year. And disability charities say it could be as high as 100,000. They have little doubt that the deteriorating situation is being driven by “benefit scrounger” abuse.
The Department for Work and Pensions has been accused of irresponsible rhetoric, in particular for its suggestion that three in four people claiming incapacity benefit are faking disabilities – the real number is between one in 50 and one in 100. A DWP spokesman says it is “absolutely committed to supporting disabled people”, but he acknowledges that “we need to work together and do more to change negative attitudes”.
Yet Katharine Quarmby, author of Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People, warns: “Unless the government decouples reducing benefits from hinting strongly that most disabled people are scroungers, then we’re going to see more attacks.”
That is what happened to Emma Round, 28. In 2009, nerves in Round’s abdominal cavity became badly damaged, making walking extremely painful. Unable to leave the house without help, she became effectively trapped for nine months until a doctor decided to give her a wheelchair. The change revolutionised her independence, but also made her a target of abuse.
16th August 2012