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Environment

Hate crimes against Britain's disabled on the rise

Disability related hate crime has increased by 75% in the UK. Campaigners say Britain's tabloid newspapers may be partly responsible for stirring up hatred against disabled people because they vilify people on welfare.

Policewoman walking along street with intellectually disabled man.

British police are taking special training to deal with disabled hate crime

Charity groups in Britain say there is growing evidence that disabled people are increasingly the targets of abusive comments or aggressive behavior.

British charity “Scope” says that over the last two years, disabled people have reported a 50 percent increase in verbal abuse and intimidation on London's public transport.

Recently, the organization's chairwoman, Alice Maynard, who has a neuromuscular impairment and uses a wheelchair, admitted she was regularly sworn at when using the London Underground.

Other support groups have reported worse incidents. "When you hear stories of people being tipped out of a wheelchair. That frankly beggars belief. Why would anyone actually do that?" David Congdon from the charity Mencap told Deutsche Welle.

Wheelchair

Many disabled commuters face abuse and violence on their way to work

"Being spat at in the street, having things pushed through their letterbox. All those sorts of awful things that go on far too often, we want to stop," he added.

“What we know from talking to people with a learning disability is that too many of their lives are destroyed by the constant harassment that goes on .”

Tabloids to blame?

Campaigners say Britain’s tabloid press has played a role in aggravating hostility towards disabled people.

Even as public spending cuts have hit people on welfare hard, some tabloid newspapers in recent months have played up so-called disability benefit fraud. Some have even portrayed disabled people as "work shy" and as "spongers.”

One story of a 37-year old claimant, who said she needed crutches to assist with walking but was later seen skydiving, was widely written about.

Book cover of Katharine Quarmby's book, Scapegoat: Why We Fail Disabled People

People with disabilities are increasingly becoming targets for abuse

While campaigners say there is invariably fraud within the welfare system, they point out these types of stories are unfair on the majority of people with disabilities because they reinforce stereotypes and spark resentment against some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Signs of progress

While newspapers may be amplifying prejudices that already exist, journalist Katharine Quarmby and author of the book “Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People ” thinks police forces are beginning to take the issue of disability-related hate crime more seriously.

"Four years ago, many police officers didn't even know that disability hate crime existed. They certainly do now," Quarmby told Deutsche Welle.

Katharine Quarmby

Quarmby says the police are beginning to take hate crimes more seriously

"Most of them have to do training for it. Prosecutors have to undertake mandatory training so they can apply the law and ask judges to enhance sentences."

In the last few years, the number of recorded cases in the UK has risen dramatically. The most recent figures, in 2009, show a 75 percent increase in one year.

Quarmby says much of that is the result of better reporting of the crimes. According to her, Britain now leads the world in identifying, prosecuting and challenging disability-related hate crimes.

Victims of 'mate crime'

But there's still a long way to go. In 2007, one of Britain’s worst cases of hate crime against disabled people made the headlines and sparked a huge public debate.

Fiona Pilkington, 38, killed herself and her disabled daughter Francecca Hardwick, 18, following 10 years of sustained abuse and harassment by a gang in Leicestershire.

In the case of Steven Hoskin from Cornwall in south-west England, the 38-year -old, who had profound learning difficulties, was befriended by five people who went on to torture him. They force fed him 70 painkillers and made him jump to his death from a 100-foot bridge.

"So many people with learning disabilities in particular are groomed, exploited and eventually attacked by people who they consider to be their friends," said Quarmby.

Quarmy has also written about 'Tuesday friends', where so-called buddies visit disabled people on the day their welfare check arrives in the post, encouraging them to part with most or all of their cash.

Other campaigners too are determined to ensure that hate crimes don't go unpunished.

The charity Mencap has launched the 'Stand by Me' campaign to encourage even more disabled people to report hate crime. They've called on British police forces to continue to improve the way they respond to these sorts of attacks and how they handle the victims.

They say it's about time certain sections of the British public changed their attitudes towards the plight of disabled and learning disabled people.

Author: Nik Martin (jw)
Editor: Anke Rasper

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