Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
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Inquiry reveals systemic institutional failure to tackle harassment of disabled people

Evidence from a groundbreaking inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that hundreds of thousands of disabled people regularly experience harassment or abuse but a culture of disbelief is preventing public authorities from tackling it effectively.

The report, “Hidden in Plain Sight”, says that many disabled people have come to accept harassment – including verbal and physical abuse, theft and fraud, sexual harassment and bullying – as inevitable.

The inquiry sets out the serious and systemic failings in the way that public authorities have dealt with disability harassment, including a detailed examination of ten cases of severe abuse, nine of which resulted in the death of the victim. Further evidence indicates that perpetrators rarely face any consequences for their actions, while their victims continue to live in fear of harassment.

The Commission’s investigation into ten cases found that some public bodies were aware of earlier incidents of harassment, but had taken little action to bring it to an end. Evidence hearings held by the Commission with the different services and organisations involved revealed that there was often a failure to share information. In five of the ten cases, no serious case review has been conducted, implying that lessons have not been learnt for the future.

These cases include that of David Askew, a 64-year-old man with learning difficulties, who died of a heart attack after suffering years of harassment at the hands of local youths; Brent Martin, a 23-year-old man who was murdered only three months after leaving a mental health institution; and Michael Gilbert, who was murdered by a family who had abducted him and kept him as a prisoner for several years.

Evidence from disabled people found that they often do not report incidents of harassment, as it may be unclear who to report it to, they may fear the consequences of reporting, or they may fear that the police and other authorities will not believe them. The evidence also revealed that incidents are dealt with in isolation, rather than as a pattern of behaviour, and that there is often a focus on the victim’s behaviour rather than dealing with the perpetrators.

The inquiry found that the true extent of harassment is not recognised by public authorities, despite disabled people saying it is a commonplace experience. The British Crime Survey shows 1.9 million disabled people were the victims of crime in 2009/10, however, these statistics exclude disability-related harassment that is not considered to be criminal behaviour. Disabled people are more likely to be the victim of a crime than people who do not have a disability. According to one online poll, as many as 56 per cent of disabled people have experienced hostility, aggression or violence from a stranger because of their disability.

The inquiry makes recommendations to public authorities on how to address the problems it has uncovered, which the Commission will be consulting on before publishing a manifesto for change in the spring of 2012. The recommendations focus on three key areas:

  • Recognition: senior managers need to recognise this as an issue and show leadership; better information on the harassment of disabled people needs to be collected by all agencies; and a more positive attitude towards disabled people needs to be encouraged across society.
  • Prevention: agencies must share best practice; staff should be given training and guidance on how to deal with disability-related harassment; research should be done into perpetrators and how to deter them.
  • Redress: the criminal justice system must become more accessible and responsive to disabled people; police must routinely consider disability as a motive where a victim is disabled; victims must be better supported and perpetrators brought to justice.

Mike Smith, lead commissioner and disability committee chair, said:

“For me, two particular concerns come out of this inquiry. The first is just how much harassment seems to be going on. It's not just some extreme things happening to a handful of people: it's an awful lot of unpleasant things happening to a great many people. The second is that no one knows about it. When we were young we were told not to stare at disabled people. So no one has been.

It's as though there is collective denial this could be happening, as if people are thinking 'we are supposed to feel sorry for these people, so why would anyone be deliberately horrible to them?' Maybe it just makes us too uncomfortable, thinking that might be the society in which we live.

Dealing with disability-related harassment is going to take concerted effort by a significant number of public authorities, with proper leadership and joint working at all levels. But it won't just be public authorities that have to act differently. It's all of us. I want the person at the bus stop who sees something happening, or the plumber repairing a tap who comes across something untoward, to know that they too should take action.”

Download: Hidden in plain sight PDF

For more press information contact the Commission’s media office on 020 3117 0255, out of hours 07767 272 818.

For general enquiries please contact the Commission’s national helpline: England 0845 604 6610, Scotland 0845 604 5510 or Wales 0845 604 8810.