The media’s portrayal of disabled people as “scroungers” who are on benefits has helped fuel the rise in reported hate crimes, campaigners have said.
The number of reports of hate crimes against disabled people in 2016/17 rose by 53%, Home Office statistics released on Tuesday reveal.
Yet despite the startling rise, disability campaigners said the figures are also promising as they could indicate that disabled people are feeling more confident in reporting crimes when they take place.
Stephen Brookes, coordinator at the Disability Hate Crime Network and former chair of the National Union of Journalists Disabled Members’ Council, said that disabled people are portrayed in a disproportionately unfair light in the media.
“The media pick up on the worst case scenario. (Do) non-disabled people... all get called shoplifters or cheats? No. The media have a big part to play in demonising disabled people,” Brookes told HuffPost UK.
“Of course there are disabled people who try and cheat. There are non-disabled people who try and cheat the system. But if we cheat the system we are nailed because it’s a good headline.”
Brookes’ comments were echoed by Kamran Mallick, CEO of Disability Rights UK, who said that the portrayal of disabled people in the media and the “negative rhetoric” around such stories could have had an impact on the number of reports.
“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.
“Often the language around it is very unhelpful and can cause, potentially, some impact on disabled people in that way.”
Mallick agreed, adding: “I think there has been a steady coverage around this area, around disabled people, people out of work or those who claim benefits, the kind of negativity around that. And the association that therefore you are inherently either lazy or not contributing to society.”
Figures released by the Home Office today showed that in 2016/17 there were 5,558 reported disability hate crimes recorded by police, compared to 3,629 the previous year.
The number of such reports have more than doubled in the past two years, with police receiving 2,515 reports in 2014/15.
Shani Dhanda, a disability activist, has osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease.
When she was at a London hotel by herself one night, trying to check in at about 2am, she was harassed by a group of men who were taking pictures of her.
“There was a group of men at the bar, which was about three or four metres away from the check in desk, laughing and sniggering.
″(At first) I thought nothing of it. Then I turned around for a moment and they were taking pictures of me,” the 30-year-old told HuffPost UK.
When she asked the men why they were photographing her, they denied it, claiming to be taking pictures of a sign behind her.
Dhanda asked the hotel receptionist to help, but he said he was not able to insist to see the phone which had the images on.
“I was standing there and I was crying. I was in absolute shock,” Dhanda said.
“It really unnerved me. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before in such a way as that.”
Dhanda added: “As a person of disability, people just feel they have a right to take your photo, make videos of you.
“People come up to me all the time and are like ‘what’s your life expectancy’, I don’t know these people, but they come up to you and ask ‘what’s your life expectancy’ and ‘can you have sex’.
“I would never dream of going up to anybody and asking them these questions. For some reason society feels that, because somebody is different, that they have a free pass to just ask anything and it’s downright rude.”
Dhanda said that she is used to being stared at and pointed at in the street, but that being alone in such a situation can make a disabled person more vulnerable to unwanted attention.
She said that she did consider informing the police at the time, but then thought they would “have better things to do”.
“I was put off about wasting police time,” she said. “But next time I would make a video and contact the police.”
After making a complaint to the head of the hotel group, Dhanda was informed that staff would be given sensitivity training.
Dhanda, who works in events management, said that she is going to take the Home Office statistics “with a pinch of salt” as there are still many disabled people who do not report incidents.
She also said that the media could do more to represent disabled people in a more positive light, adding: “The media definitely is to sort of blame in a way. They can do so much more with their platform.”
Campaigners have said that this year’s 53% spike in hate crime reports is not necessarily a negative thing.
Brookes said: “I would love to see a thousand percent increase in hate crime reports because then we are getting nearer to the truth.
“Then we are getting to the fact that disabled people are not bothering to not report.”
Mallick said that more people are willing to come forward when they are the victims of a hate crime, adding: “For a long time, disabled people didn’t think that they should report what they may have classed as just what happens to them.”
Both Mallick and Brookes have experienced instances of abuse or harassment because of their disabilities.
Mallick, who is a wheelchair user, said that he has been approached by strangers asking him why he isn’t a Paralympian.
“It’s kind of you’re either on benefits or you’re aspiring to be a Paralympian,” Mallick said.
Brookes, who uses a walking stick following a car crash in 1997, said that half of his disabilities are hidden.
“I was at a bus stop and someone drove past and yelled out ‘benefit scrounger’.
“Nobody knows me but the perception is there (because) I am with a stick at a bus stop,” Brookes said.
Tuesday’s figures showed that the number of hate crimes recorded by police surged after the Brexit referendum, with the biggest ever increase recorded at 29%.
A total of 80,393 offences were recorded in 2016/2017. In addition to disability, these figures include race, religion and LGBT hate crime reports.