'It Really Scares You': Disability Hate Crime Is Soaring Online

Cases are up by more than 50% compared to last year – and this is the impact.

Hate-fuelled abuse of disabled people online has soared by more than 50% in the last year, according to police figures obtained by two charities.

There were 9,252 disability hate crimes reported to police across England and Wales in 2020/21 – up slightly from the previous year, according to the disability charities Leonard Cheshire and United Response.

This is the equivalent of 25 offences a day, but the charities warn that the problem is likely to be far greater due to underreporting. Reports of online crimes specifically were up 51.6% compared to the previous year.

Cassie Lovelock – who was pushed and threatened by men while in her wheelchair and separately abused online – believes disability-related hate crime is occurring more often “than anyone is ready to admit”.

The 26-year-old PhD student said two drunk men threatened to rape her and pushed her wheelchair along a street in north London in March, while onlookers did not help.

She said she was told by police that when she reported the incident 10 days later ”there’s not much we can do”.

Cassie Lovelock, 26, has been threatened on and offline.
Leonard Cheshire Disability/PA
Cassie Lovelock, 26, has been threatened on and offline.

“There’s social sanctions to treating people badly, if you do it because of their race or their gender or their sexuality, but those social sanctions don’t exist for disability,” she told the PA news agency.

“I think it’s that stigma that firstly needs to change. For the police to really understand that it’s not acceptable to treat a disabled person badly, they first have to respect disabled people as equal to everyone else. Our oppression looks different to gender or ethnic/racial oppression. We are still trying to have a seat at the metaphorical table.”

The Home Office and National Police Chiefs’ Council have both said they take hate crime “very seriously”.

Lovelock said she has also experienced abuse online, with some “really awful” comments along the lines of: “I’m gonna find you and I’ll hurt you.” In July, a stranger tracked down her phone number and called her after she posted a blog about how her condition causes her to experience memory loss.

Lovelock said the experience was “isolating” and she wants to be open like any other person without the prospect of harassment.

“It really scares you and it makes you want to not be open about these things…being disabled you’re sort of inherently vulnerable by how society views you and how society treats you, whether your disability makes you physically vulnerable or otherwise,” she said.

“And then people take advantage of that and then you’re stuck in your house and you’re like, ‘What if they find where I live, how am I going to get away?’ – all of these things. Some people would say, ‘Oh ,you’re overthinking’, but then they already found your phone number – so are you?”

Cassie Lovelock: “It really scares you."
Leonard Cheshire Disability/PA
Cassie Lovelock: “It really scares you."

Her experience is sadly not unusual. Of the 9,252 disability hate crimes reported to police across England and Wales last year, 4,101 (44%) were classed as violent – involving assault or possession of weapons – up 4.4% from the previous 12 months.

And there were 981 disability hate crimes reported that occurred online – up 51.6% from 2019-20.

The data is taken from responses to freedom of information requests from 39 police forces.

Abi, from Yorkshire, had 50,000 followers on a social media platform when she was targeted by trolls. The abuse was motivated by her having autism and being a member of the LGBTQ community, she said.

“They revealed my real name and where I lived. The social media platform just told me to make my account private but took no action to identify the trolls or remove their hateful content,” she said. “The police also just told me to unlink or deactivate my social profiles.”

There was also an 88.5% rise in the number of repeat offenders over the same period.

The charity Leonard Cheshire said it was “perhaps little wonder” that repeat offender rates had risen, given that just 104 reported crimes were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service or resulted in a charge in 2020-21. This is around 1% of the total reported.

“Many disabled people we spoke to said they wouldn’t report their hate crime to the police, so our findings are likely to scarcely scratch the surface of the true scale of these horrific incidents,” a spokesperson said.

“The stories we’ve heard suggest many police officers do not have a good understanding of disability. So we’re calling for a specialist disability liaison officer in every police force.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “All forms of hate crime are completely unacceptable. The Government takes this issue very seriously, which is why we published the hate crime action plan which has improved the police response to all forms of hate crime.

“We are also working with disabled people and other disability stakeholders to develop a new Strategy which will be published in Autumn 2021.”

The National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman Martin Hewitt told the PA news agency he had not seen the figures, but that any significant rise in people being victimised due to having a disability is “something of course that we need to look at and deal with very, very seriously”.

He added: “I would certainly assure anybody that any hate crime is taken very seriously by policing and we will seek to do everything we can to minimise that victimisation.”