Many people with disabilities accept harassment and bullying as inevitable but a culture of disbelief is preventing public authorities from tackling it effectively, a report has found.

‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ by human rights watchdog the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), makes this conclusion after an inquiry into disability related harassment. It found that many disabled people see harassment – including verbal and physical abuse, theft and fraud, sexual harassment and bullying – as part of everyday life.

The report outlines the serious and systemic failings in the way that public authorities have dealt with disability harassment. It includes a detailed examination of 10 cases of severe abuse, 9 of which resulted in the death of the victim – including David Askew, a 64-year-old man with learning difficulties, who died of a heart attack after suffering years of harassment at the hands of local youths.

Evidence from disabled people found that they often do not report incidents of harassment, as it may be unclear who to report it to, they may fear the consequences of reporting, or that the police and other authorities will not believe them. The evidence also revealed that incidents are dealt with in isolation, rather than as a pattern of behaviour, and that there is often a focus on the victim’s behaviour rather than dealing with the perpetrators. Further evidence indicates that perpetrators rarely face any consequences for their actions, while their victims continue to live in fear of harassment.

The EHRC recommends encouraging a more positive attitude towards disabled people across society and that police must routinely consider disability as a motive where a victim is disabled. In addition, victims must be better supported and perpetrators brought to justice.

Mike Smith, lead commissioner and disability committee chair, said: “For me, two particular concerns come out of this inquiry. The first is just how much harassment seems to be going on. It's not just some extreme things happening to a handful of people: it's an awful lot of unpleasant things happening to a great many people. The second is that no one knows about it. When we were young we were told not to stare at disabled people. So no one has been. “It's as though there is collective denial this could be happening, as if people are thinking ‘we are supposed to feel sorry for these people, so why would anyone be deliberately horrible to them?’ Maybe it just makes us too uncomfortable, thinking that might be the society in which we live. “Dealing with disability-related harassment is going to take concerted effort by a significant number of public authorities, with proper leadership and joint working at all levels. But it won't just be public authorities that have to act differently. It's all of us. I want the person at the bus stop who sees something happening, or the plumber repairing a tap who comes across something untoward, to know that they too should take action.”

David Congdon, Mencap’s head of campaigns and policy, added: “[The] EHRC report exposes systematic and institutional failings in the ability of public authorities to protect disabled people and their families from harassment. The report reveals that those responsible for caring and protecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society have still not got to grips with tackling this very serious issue. “In its examinations into 10 cases of severe abuse, including that of David Askew and Michael Gilbert, the report highlights that public authorities such as the police and social services appear too ready to sit back when it comes to disability hate crime. As a result, they end up failing to protect disabled people. “Public authorities need to step up to tackle this terrible scourge, or end up condemning hundreds of thousands of disabled people to years of violence, harassment and abuse. If such crimes are to be prevented and justice achieved for victims it is essential that these authorities act on the recommendations in the report.”