There’s a worrying rise in disability hate crimes. And the media might have a large role to play.

Disabled person in a wheelchair
Sam Woolfe

Disability hate crimes are now the second most common hate crime reported to Avon and Somerset Police. Campaigners say, nonetheless, that many victims still aren’t coming forward. Nationally, hate crimes against disabled people are also increasing. And campaigners believe that media and government rhetoric has a large part to play in perpetuating the problem.

Rising awareness about disability hate crimes

North Somerset Council made it a priority to tackle hate crimes in its Safe and Stronger draft plan. This comes after police in the area recorded 332 hate crime incidents in 2016/17. As the plan notes:

Race is recorded as the motivating factor in a high number of offences, though proportionally there have been large increases in disability hate crime reports.

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Michelle Burnett, chief executive of North Somerset People First, a group that offers support to people with learning disabilities, says that while awareness of disability hate crime has increased, there is still underreporting:

People are becoming more and more aware that certain behaviour is not acceptable, but I still believe that there’s a large number of people that aren’t reporting these crimes.

The media’s role

Nationally, there was a 53% rise in disability related hate crimes from 2015/16 to 2016/17. Campaigners have argued that this increase is due, in part, to the media’s negative portrayal of people with disabilities as ‘benefit scroungers’.  Repeated headlines in papers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express regularly reinforce the message that disabled people are ‘scroungers’ or ‘cheats’.

Kamran Mallick, chief executive at Disability Rights UK, said:

The things in the media around disabled people who are on benefits seem to be (that they are).. scroungers and not working and so therefore not contributing.

But Anne Novis, a coordinator at the Disability Hate Crime Network, stresses that government ministers also contribute to ‘demonising’ disabled people:

When a certain section of society is demonised as being the sole cause for the economic woes of a country, just like we are seeing with immigrants, then it’s like painting a bulls-eye upon us. We become the targets for all sorts of abuse, harassment and violence.

Burnett believes people with disabilities aren’t coming forward because they’re used to hearing the insults hurled at them. It’s become normalised. This is because the demonisation of benefit claimants is commonplace. The mainstream media and the Conservative government must be held to account for contributing to this disturbing problem.

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