Online abuse and the experience of disabled people Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The importance of social media to disabled people

1.Social media and the internet is central to how most of us live our lives—whether we consider ourselves disabled or not. The time when it was reasonable to tell people experiencing difficulties online to stop using social media has long gone. Being able to use the internet without fear is no more a luxury than being able to go to the shops, the workplace or meet friends in a park. (Paragraph 29)

2.Facilitating people with rare conditions to speak with one voice, enabling people to campaign for their rights and providing a method to reduce the isolation of a marginalised group are some of the many positive impacts of social media on the lives of disabled people that we heard about. In fact, it was clear after speaking to groups of disabled people that they could be some of the best advocates for social media if only their needs were considered. (Paragraph 30)

Visibility and changing attitudes

3.It is deeply disappointing that the footballing organisations with whom we raised concerns about abusive behaviour expressed no interest in addressing the problem. Their lack of response is shameful. (Paragraph 45)

4.Disabled people have told us loudly and clearly that online abuse and harassment is a result of a wider culture that is hostile to disabled people. Those we spoke to were clear that there won’t be change without tackling the attitudes that lead to online abuse and encouraging a more positive portrayal of disability and disabled people in the media. The Government must challenge beliefs and attitudes around disability and recognise that offline attitudes influence online behaviour. More than half the UK population feel awkward around disabled people and more than a quarter say they have avoided talking to someone because they were disabled. Unless these things change, disabled people will continue to feel marginalised. (Paragraph 46)

5.The people we met described a “culture of fear” among disabled people who post about their daily lives and activities, due to a real risk of being falsely accused of faking their disability to gain social security benefits and threatened with being reported to the Department for Work and Pensions for fraud. We were told that disabled people who posted about political activism and campaigning for their rights under the law were particularly at risk of being reported, or threatened with being reported, to the DWP. (Paragraph 47)

6.We recommend that the Government increase the representation of disabled people in its own events, publications and advertising. In particular, we recommend that the Government introduce targets to ensure that its own advertising campaigns reflect the disabled population of the UK. Disabled people are parents, partners, neighbours, friends, work colleagues, sons and daughters. We recommend that at least 19% of all images of working-age people in all Government advertising campaigns are images of disabled people. Such representation needs to reflect the diversity of disabled people and their life experiences. We recommend that the Government ask other public bodies to do the same. (Paragraph 48)

7.The Government needs to act to remove the barriers that leave disabled people so marginalised that 21% of young adults would avoid talking to someone due to their disability. Young people should be coming into contact with disabled people regularly. The Government can make a difference by increasing disability awareness in schools. We recommend that the Government create a disability awareness programme co-produced with disabled people themselves to ensure that it reflects disabled people’s lives, frames them as three-dimensional human beings and does not focus on disabled people as “problems”. We recommend that building children’s understanding of disability and disabled people—and, separately, of the effects of online bullying and abuse of disabled people in particular—becomes mandatory, not optional, in schools. (Paragraph 49)

Effects of online abuse

8.Online abuse can be a life or death issue for some disabled people. Its effects are felt not only in damaged physical and mental health, but in lost career opportunities and a restricted social life. It is not acceptable to suggest that disabled people should forgo using the internet or social media when it is an integral part of their lives. It is not acceptable for the Government to pass its responsibility to others, such as social media companies. The Government’s aim to continue to push for and expand “digital by default” makes it the Government’s responsibility to ensure that disabled people can get online and stay online. (Paragraph 54)

Supporting people to stay online

9.We recommend that the Government acknowledge the importance of the internet to disabled people and how disabled people are affected by abuse. We heard the enormous value that social media in particular has for disabled people. It enables them to campaign, work, learn and socialise in a way that is otherwise impossible due to the inaccessibility of the offline world and is essential because they need to fight to be heard. The evidence makes clear that online abuse has a significant effect on the health of people with long-term conditions and disabilities. Abuse is not simply “offensive” or “bad manners”. It does lasting damage to people’s lives, health and careers. (Paragraph 56)

10.We recommend that the Government commit to ensuring that the internet is no more dangerous for disabled people than non-disabled people. To do that, we recommend that the Government ensure that the voices of a diverse range of disabled people are included at the heart of its discussions on online safety. Disabled people must be explicitly consulted and their views taken into account. (Paragraph 57)

11.We recommend that the Government acknowledge that training and support are necessary to encourage safe online activity and recognise when things might be going wrong. The social isolation that disability can lead to can be mitigated by getting and staying online. We recommend that the Government makes guidance on staying safe online, suitable for disabled people, available through the public services that disabled people regularly use and to those who might work in environments where people seek help to go online. We recommend that all such guidance must include how to identify and manage cases of hate crime and online abuse. People also need help to recognise befriending with the intent of exploitation online (so-called “mate crime”), which we discuss in chapter 3. We recommend the Government ensure that there is nationally available information, which clearly lays out how individuals, businesses and charities should deal with suspicions of exploitation and abuse. (Paragraph 58)

Accessibility and inclusion

12.Both the Government Minister and social media companies responded to questions about disabled adults with answers about children. This is sadly evidence of the problem that disabled people repeatedly described to us. They are not considered capable of controlling or understanding their own lives. Disabled people are not inherently vulnerable or in need of a “high level of protection”, but adults asking for access to the same level of protection as other internet users. (Paragraph 66)

13.Disabled people are not hard to reach, only easy to ignore. We recommend that the Government include disabled people explicitly and directly in all consultations, including on digital strategy. If disabled people aren’t in the room, they aren’t being consulted. All consultations must be accessible to, and directly involve, disabled people, including people with physical, neurological, developmental, sensory and learning disabilities. We recommend that the Government to report to Parliament on how it has consulted with disabled people and what changes that consultation has led to. We recommend that the Government set out in its response to this report how and how often it will make such reports to Parliament. (Paragraph 67)

Accessibility of social media policies and reporting mechanisms

14.Disabled people need to be able to manage their settings, report abusive content and see action taken, and make informed decisions about how they use social media. All policies must be fully accessible, including to those with learning disabilities. We were told that social media companies felt that simplifying policies and legal documents could cause greater confusion and potentially lead to needlessly complex explanations of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour online. However, Easy Read versions of complex documents are regularly produced, including Select Committee reports, NHS consultations and legal contracts, such as tenancy agreements. In our inquiry, we have met experienced disabled experts ready and willing to assist with such work. We believe that appropriate consultation with disabled people will help social media companies overcome this perceived problem. (Paragraph 79)

15.We recommend that the Government require social media companies to have polices, mechanisms and settings that are accessible to all disabled people. That must include Easy Read versions of all relevant policies. Policies may include, but are not limited to:

Mechanisms and settings may include, but are not limited to:

16.To ensure that the particular concerns of disabled people are recognised, we recommend that social media companies be required to demonstrate that they have consulted and worked in partnership with disabled people themselves when developing policies and processes. (Paragraph 81)

17.The rules for social media platforms should be easy to identify, find and understand. It should be clear what behaviour is offensive and how to report abuse. It is unacceptable that police services are bearing the costs of social media companies’ failure to communicate the difference between unacceptable behaviour and criminal behaviour and how to report abuse appropriately. We recommend that social media companies be required to be more proactive, not only in searching for abusive and extreme content, but in ensuring their users understand the limits of acceptable behaviour, including the use of images and hashtags, and in actively reporting potentially criminal behaviour. We recommend that this covers the use of images of disabled people, particularly disabled children, to create “jokes”. (Paragraph 82)

Regulating social media

18.The Government must accept its responsibility for ensuring disabled people’s safety online. We recommend that the Government acknowledge that the current model of self-regulation of social media has failed—and is still failing—disabled people. We recommend that it takes steps to ensure that social media companies accept their responsibility for allowing illegal and abusive content on their sites and the toxic environment this creates for users. We recommend that the Government ensures that social media companies accept their responsibility to make sure that disabled people can make use of online tools as other users can. (Paragraph 86)

Does the law work for disabled people?

19.If the criminal law cannot deal with distributing fake child pornography to mock a disabled child and his family, then the law is inadequate. We agree with the petitioner, Katie Price, and the Law Commission that the current law on online abuse is not fit for purpose. The disabled people we spoke to were clear that they wanted disabled people to have the same protections from hate crime as victims of racist abuse and for the Government’s statement “What is illegal offline, is illegal online” to be true in practice. Disabled people are already marginalised. Asking them to become more disengaged from the world for their own protection is not a suitable solution to online abuse. Although we welcome the Law Commission review into offensive online communications and its statement that the criminal law needs reform to protect people from online abuse, we have concerns that the Government may again fail to act in a way that works for disabled people. (Paragraph 102)

20.The police, the public and social media companies need a criminal law that is fit for purpose and draws a line between behaviour that can be tackled by private companies and behaviour that requires a criminal justice approach. It is not enough to repeat “What is illegal online, is illegal offline” as an excuse for inaction. We note that the Law Commission is reviewing abusive and offensive online communications, but we recommend that the Government brings forward legislation to clarify the law as soon as possible. We recommend that Ministers set out a timetable for doing so in the Government response to this report. Any delay must be justified to Parliament. To ensure that new legislation takes into account the needs of disabled people, we recommend that the Government consult disabled people directly. Such a consultation must be accessible to all disabled people, including those who are currently not using the internet due to their fear or experience of abuse. (Paragraph 103)

21.Disabled people do not feel adequately protected or valued by the law. Many of the disabled people we spoke to felt that the UK Government has the information it needs to change the legislation now, and commissioning another Law Commission review into hate crime was simply avoiding the issue. We recommend that the Government amend hate crime legislation to ensure disability hate crime has parity with other hate crime offences. To ensure that the law applies where a victim had been selected because they were disabled, we recommend that it abolish the need to prove that hate crime against disabled people is motivated by hostility. It should be enough to prove that an offence was committed by “by reason of” their disability. (Paragraph 112)

22.As Professor Walters told us in written evidence, the vulnerability designation prevents disability hate crime from being fully recognised and perpetrators appropriately punished. The criminal justice system is too quick to categorise disabled people as “vulnerable”. The vulnerability designation perpetuates damaging stereotypes about disabled people, which in turn may reinforce the beliefs and attitudes that lead to disabled people being marginalised and abused. (Paragraph 117)

23.The CPS and the police can only work within the framework provided by the law. We recommend that the Government work with disabled people to review the use of such designations. The review should have the aim of ensuring hate crimes are properly reported and sentenced as such and that “vulnerability” is only used when appropriate. (Paragraph 118)

24.The petition calls for a “register of offenders”. We believe that a sensible criminal law, which covered online abuse and included proper recognition of hate crimes against disabled people, will achieve what the petition is looking for from a register, as criminal convictions will show up as part of a Disclosure and Barring Service check. (Paragraph 121)

25.We recommend that the Government ensure that employers of support workers or others working with or for disabled people can check whether an employee has been convicted of a disability hate crime. When the Government reforms hate crime legislation, we recommend that it ensure that it is possible for a conviction for a hate-related offence to show up in a Disclosure and Barring Service check. (Paragraph 122)

26.Organisations such as the Crown Prosecution Service and individual police forces are reporting excellent work, but too many disabled people told us that their experiences with the criminal justice system were largely or wholly negative. New initiatives are helpful but national co-ordination and long-term funding are lacking. We heard that fragmentation and inconsistency generates mistrust. Many disabled people we spoke to were angered by the statement in our special report on the draft recommendations that “It is easier now for people with disabilities to report hate crime or be a witness.” That level of anger is a clear indication that something still isn’t working. (Paragraph 135)

27.We recommend that the Government conduct a full overarching review into the experience of disabled people reporting crime and giving evidence, covering the work of third-party reporting centres, online initiatives, the police and the courts. In particular, we recommend that it develops an action plan to ensure that the appropriate training and procedures are in place so that disabled people, including adults with learning disabilities or autism, are treated as “reliable witnesses” and appropriately supported from the moment they approach the police. (Paragraph 136)

28.We recommend that the Government ensure that every frontline police officer receives the support necessary to ensure that disabled people have equal access to, and treatment in, the criminal justice system. (Paragraph 137)

29.Disabled people have the same rights as everyone else to make unwise decisions, but that in no way lessens the Government’s responsibility to ensure that people are safe from abuse and exploitation. Social media and online dating sites have increased the exposure of people who are vulnerable to exploitation to those who might target them. This is a difficult issue that the Government must grasp. It leads to real-life consequences, including theft, rape and murder. (Paragraph 146)

30.We heard from disabled people that “mate crime is hate crime”. Dealing with exploitation, online and offline, seems to have been left in the “too difficult” box. We met people who had been sexually and financially exploited by those they met online. We heard of cases where people have been murdered and tortured. It’s time for the Government to act. We recommend that the Government establish a Ministerial review to address befriending with the intention of exploitation on and offline. In doing so, it must bring together all agencies, organisations and people concerned, particularly disabled people, and include social media and online dating companies. It must report to Parliament on its intended actions within six months. We also recommend that the Law Commission consider befriending with the intent of exploitation within its review of hate crime laws. (Paragraph 147)

31.The Government must ensure that disabled people are not unnecessarily caught up in attempts to tackle befriending with the intention of exploitation. We recommend that any review of the current law must include the voices of disabled people and any actions must be co-developed with disabled people, to ensure their capacity to make their own decisions is respected and that they are not further marginalised. (Paragraph 148)

Published: 22 January 2019