In August, September and October 2018 we held face-to-face engagement events in Belfast, Newcastle, Glasgow and Swansea to discuss the draft recommendations published in the special report, “Online abuse and the experience of disabled people: draft recommendations for consultation”. We held the face-to-face events after hearing that some disabled people are afraid to use or were being encouraged to stop using social media due to fear of abuse. Participants were invited to review our 14 proposed recommendations. Participants discussed each recommendation and decided whether they agreed or disagreed. For those the groups did not agree with, they discussed why and ways it could be improved.
There was a very strong desire for more consultation directly with disabled people. It was felt that involvement of and engagement with disabled people must be at the core of all change that affects them. It was felt that disabled people’s needs were not considered at all in public policy. We were told that disabled people were more likely to be economically and socially marginalised, and therefore needed to be consulted to ensure that programmes and policies did not inadvertently lead to further marginalisation. We were also told that there was a lack of understanding about the skills and experience of disabled people, which could be drawn on in planning policies and programmes.
It was pointed out that online abuse can be life-threatening for people who rely on social media as their main means of communication. It was therefore imperative that the needs of disabled people are fully considered. Being chased off social media can have the same impact as being forced to stay indoors.
For engagement to be legitimate, it must be led by disabled people not disability charities. At each event, participants named national disability charities that failed to consult disabled people before responding to consultations. Participants felt that disabled people did not need non-disabled people to speak on their behalf and that some disability charities acted as gatekeepers to Government consultations and prevented disabled people from having their voices heard.
We were told that more should be done to reach disabled people to encourage them to engage directly in consultations rather than relying on organisations. It was pointed out that disabled people are often users of multiple public services and are therefore easy for the Government to reach with information about consultations.
We were also told that there is a lack of awareness and understanding of disability. Even in organisations that claim to focus on diversity and inclusion, it’s seen as a specialist rather than a standard part of inclusion. Participants felt that disability is considered only after the other protected characteristics. The diversity of disabled people and intersectionality were brought up, with the particular need to consider disabled people of different races, faiths and sexualities in consultation.
To be meaningful, consultation must have a result. One group suggested that reporting to Parliament on what consultation had been done and what consultation had changed would be a good way to ensure that consultation was meaningful. There were particular concerns that the recommendations did not require the Government to report back to Parliament or another body.
There were a lot of criticisms that the recommendations applied only to social media and digital policy. Many people we spoke to felt that change would only be possible if there was a more comprehensive change to Government consultation and engagement with disabled people.
Participants agreed with the recommendations, but felt that they did not go far enough. It was suggested that the Government define exactly how social media companies should engage or pass laws requiring them to engage with disabled people.
There were discussions about what was meant by “social media”. We heard that comments sections on newspapers and in-game chat were often venues for abusive behaviour. People we spoke to wanted to ensure that such platforms were included in the recommendations.
We were told that if the Government wanted disabled people to take a full part in daily life and access the services that others could access, all services, including online services, would already be fully accessible. We were told that there is no will to force companies to make the necessary changes and that a “reasonable” adjustment as currently interpreted set too high a bar and excluded disabled people from daily life. New laws to make all terms and conditions and so on accessible by 2020 were suggested.
It was clear that some people, particularly those with intellectual impairments, simply do not understand when it is appropriate to report abuse to the police and when to report it to the social media company.
Cultural differences between different countries were raised. It was felt that US norms of behaviour were being used as the basis on which offence is judged in the UK. Terms of abuse, such as “retard”, were felt to be acceptable in the US but highly offensive in the UK. There were conversations about the specific abuse directed at Harvey Price, and the level of UK-specific knowledge needed to understand how and why what was happening was offensive and abusive.
There was a recognition that policing the internet was difficult because of the international nature of the medium. Participants mentioned that internet companies seemed to be able to flout the law because it was difficult for them to apply, while other organisations were expected to follow the law no matter how complicated.
It was pointed out that technology moves at such a speed that making agreements with companies that are currently popular will quickly become meaningless as users move on to other forums. Strong regulation and clear legislation are therefore necessary.
There were calls for more transparency over how decisions were made. In particular, people wanted to know whether disabled people were consulted at the moment.
As with the recommendations to require the Government to consult, there were concerns about how the recommendations for social media companies to engage with disabled people would be monitored and measured.
One point that was made repeatedly was that the abuse of disabled people wasn’t caused by social media and therefore couldn’t be fixed by social media.
People felt that there was a “hierarchy of hate” in hate crime legislation and that the lack of specific legislation around disability hate crime reflected society not caring about the lives of disabled people. There was a strong belief among all the groups that the lack of parity in law was evidence that disabled people were not valued by society.
The groups were clear that changes to the law to make incitement to disability hatred a criminal offence would be very welcome. It would show disabled people that they were as valued as non-disabled people.
There was no consensus over whether online abuse should be a specific criminal offence, but participants were clear that the law wasn’t working.
Participants were confused by the phrase “What was illegal offline is illegal online”, because they stated that things can happen online that can’t happen offline, such as “pile ons” (When a large number of users send messages to one person, particularly on Twitter. One person sending thousands of messages to someone would be harassment, but acting in a way that encourages thousands of people to send one message to someone is not necessarily.) They also felt that it was clear that people could send abusive messages online, but would be spoken to by the police if they approached someone in the street to say the same thing.
There was no consensus over a “register of offenders”, but most people agreed that employers should be able to find out if someone had committed an online abuse-related offence. In particular, participants felt that it was important that employers of people who work closely with disabled people should be able to check whether that person has committed a disability hate crime.
Training for the police and those involved in the criminal justice system was seen as very important to encourage reporting of crime, including hate crime. Working with disabled people themselves was seen as imperative to getting the right training.
Participants told us about their experiences of trying to report crime. We heard in all four nations that activities that disabled people felt were hate crime were recorded as anti-social behaviour. We also heard multiple reports of the police minimising people’s experiences of hate crime.
People with multiple or sensory impairments can need particular support when reporting crime or being a witness. There were requests for specific training on communicating with people with neurological impairments or learning disabilities, who can be more likely to be subject to police attention due to misunderstands about their behaviour. Some people we spoke to found themselves subject police attention or ignored when trying to report crime because the police interpreted their behaviour as aggressive or uncooperative.
The “vulnerability” designation was not well understood. Those who had some knowledge of it were hostile to its use, feeling that it led to under-recording of hate crime and labelled disabled people as weak. There were discussions about how disabled people were subject to abuse because they were seen as vulnerable and that people were hostile to them because they were seen as weak. Some participants stated that it was not possible to accurately record hate crime if all crime committed because the victim was vulnerable was disregarded.
There were strong negative reactions to our statement that “It is easier now for people with disabilities to report hate crime or be a witness.” Those we spoke to stated that in their experience, disabled people were excluded by the justice system and not taken seriously by the police.
We heard about good local projects to encourage the reporting of hate crime, such as third-party reporting centres, but those we spoke to told us that they felt that there had been no impact on hate crime. Those who worked in those centres told us that they knew of a lot more hate crime than was being reported.
How abuse affects a victim’s ability to trust sources of information was discussed. In particular, the need to feel that a source of information is safe. We were told that people didn’t know where to get help and support. Although places advertised themselves as safe spaces, it was impossible to know whether they were legitimate. It was pointed out that when someone is abused online, they need to be comfortable that they are reporting it to an official body on an official website. For that reason, national standards and a single simple way to report abuse are necessary.
Many people we spoke to were very supportive of educating children and young people about disability. However, there were concerns about “demonising” young people. People pointed out that abuse came from people of all ages, and although children could be curious and insensitive, it was often adults who were abusive. It was made clear that any attempts to educate young people about disability must avoid the idea that disabled people need to be pitied and must be led by disabled people themselves. We were told that the problems start because children and young people are often separated from disabled people by segregated schooling. It was important to ensure that young people meet and interact with disabled people from an early age.
A large number of people suggested that more should be done to improve the representation of disabled people, rather than only concentrating on educating young people.
Those we spoke to were largely positive about the idea of providing more information about online abuse and supporting people to stay online. However, participants felt that that information should be available everywhere where people get online. In particular, libraries or day centres needed to offer information about online safety.
There were mixed views about the recommendation to do more to tackle mate crime.
There were discussions about whether identifying “mate crime” as something that happens particularly to disabled people was infantilising and could have unintended consequences, such as dating sites excluding disabled people to “protect” them. Some people described the idea that disabled people were particularly vulnerable to being befriended with the intention of exploitation as offensive.
Some people we spoke to talked about the difficulties of being seen as autonomous adults with sex lives and complicated adult relationships. They felt that concentrating on mate crime could lead to them being treated as sexless or less deserving of independence.
Some groups felt that adults with learning disabilities were unfairly singled out by the recommendation, while others felt that singling out adults with learning disabilities and some people with neurological impairments was necessary to prevent other disabled people being subject to inappropriate safeguarding measures. The adults with learning disabilities we spoke to were most keen to have measures in place to help deal with befriending with the intention of exploitation.
The term “mate crime” was discussed. We were told that it did not reflect the scale of abuse, which can include torture and murder, or the criminal behaviour that can result from befriending with the intention of exploitation. On the other hand, it did seem to be a widely understood term.
Published: 22 January 2019