The Petitions Committee, a parliamentary committee of the House of Commons, has published its report "Online abuse and the experience of disabled people". The report reveals the extreme level of abuse that disabled people receive online, calling for legislative change to give them same protections as those who suffer hate crime due to race or religion.
"The voices of disabled people have been central to the inquiry".
Whilst the inquiry looked at incidences of online hate crime against people with physical, neurological, developmental, and sensory disabilities, it's examination of the experiences of learning disabled people is particularly pertinent.
Background to the inquiry
The inquiry was prompted by a petition started by Katie Price, a media personality and mother to a child with multiple disabilities. Her son, Harvey, 16, is partially blind, autistic, and has the genetic disorder Prader-Willi syndrome which involves learning and behavioural disabilities.
The petition was signed by over 220,000 people and calls for online abuse to be made a specific criminal offence and an offender register to be created.
How the inquiry gathered evidence
The Petitions Committee oversee and act on e-petitions submitted to the UK Parliament and Government. They gathered evidence, both formal and informal from many people, charities, and services, beginning with the Price family.
Evidence came from social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as well as disability campaigners, charities, police forces, and government figures.
"From the start, the voices of disabled people have been central to the inquiry", the report reads. "Most of our evidence has come from people who self-identify as disabled". Events in which disabled people could submit their experiences of online abuse were held all around the four nations.
Scope, the charity, hosted a chat thread in which people could share their experiences, and the House of Commons Facebook page hosted a conversation on the topic as well as an online survey.
Hate crimes against Harvey Price
Katie Price gave evidence about the abuse Harvey faces online, and highlights how the abusers thrive off the knowledge that Harvey cannot respond. Price refers to an incident in which Channel 4 aired comedian Frankie Boyle's comment that Harvey had to be physically restrained from raping his mother. Airing this comment on television condones such insulting and degrading comments and fuels further attacks; in fact, Price was sent videos via social media edited to make it appear as if Harvey is engaged in sexual intercourse. She tells the Petitions Committee that "you name it, they do it to Harvey" in terms of the scope of hate crime. His face has even been edited onto the bodies of terrorists.
"Mate crime" is hate crime
The report highlights the need for greater awareness of "mate crime" in both law and practice.
The Association for Real Change, an umbrella body representing providers in the learning disability sector, defines “mate crime” as: "when someone ‘makes friends’ with a person and goes on to abuse or exploit that relationship. The founding intention of the relationship, from the point of view of the perpetrator, is likely to be criminal. The relationship is likely to be of some duration and, if unchecked, may lead to a pattern of repeat and worsening abuse".
The inquiry saw evidence about a man with a learning disability who was subject to a campaign of targeted online abuse. John was accused of by an online "friend" of being a "paedo" after 'liking' photos of people's children on Facebook. Due to his learning disability, John did not understand the intentions behind the question of whether he liked young girls. His "friend" - and now others - were "deliberately taunting John and enjoying the fact that he had a learning disability and didn’t fully understand what they were doing and saying to him".
Reflective of his vulnerability, John gave out his home address when asked, and he was sent a letter threatening to tell police that he was a pedophile. John's anxiety surrounding the abuse increased until he suffered an emotional breakdown. His family decided to remove his internet use.
Accessibility of social media for learning disabled people
The report draws attention to the inaccessibility of social media: from reporting abuse to understanding terms and conditions.
People with learning disabilities in particular may struggle to understand when it is appropriate to escalate a complaint from internal social network reports to a formal police complaint.
"It was clear from our consultation that many people do not know what to do when they feel unsafe online", the report reads. "The number of people with learning disabilities and neurological or developmental impairments who told us that the first thing they should do if they felt worried online was to dial 999 was worrying".
Despite the disagreement of many disabled people, Facebook's Public Policy Manager believes its explanatory videos negate the need for Easy Read versions of the platform's policies. Mencap highlight the "complicated words, jargon and abstract language" that obscure meaning, and Dimensions says that accompanying images lack sufficient context.
- See more: Rush to reform mental capacity laws will fail to protect human rights, says charity
- See more: 5 ways that the NHS ten-year plan will improve the care of people with learning disabilities and autism
The inquiry proposes a number of recommendations to the Government
- Improve the general public's understanding of disability
- Increase the representation of disabled people in events, publications, and advertising in a way which recognises their diversity
- Create a disability awareness programme co-produced with disabled people
- Implement mandatory lessons that teach school children about the effects of online bullying and abuse of disabled people
- Commit to ensuring that the internet is no more dangerous for disabled people than non-disabled people
- Acknowledge the importance of the internet to disabled people and how disabled people are affected by abuse
- Ensure that the voices of a diverse range of disabled people are included at the heart of its discussions on online safety
- Make 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
- Create accessible resources about "mate crime"
- 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 and mechanisms may include but are not limited to:
- Terms and conditions, community standards, account policies, systems for reporting abuse or other concerns, and privacy settings
- Include disabled people explicitly and directly in all consultations
- Make consultations accessible to people with a range of disabilities
- Report to Parliament on how it - the Government - has consulted with disabled people and what changes that consultation has led to
- Plan to make such reports to Parliament regularly
- 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
- Social media companies must be proactive in preventing and tackling online abuse and hate crime
- Make it clear what behaviour is offensive and how to report abuse
- Ensure that social media companies accept their responsibility for allowing illegal and abusive content on their sites
- Make legislative changes so that disabled people feel adequately protected and valued by the law
- Have the Law Commission conduct a review into abusive and offensive online communications
- Justify any delays in producing this to Parliament
- Consult disabled people, including those who are currently not using the internet due to their fear or experience of abuse
- Amend hate crime legislation to ensure disability hate crime has parity with other hate crime offences
- 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
- Make sure 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.
- Have disability hate-related offences visible in a Disclosure and Barring Service check
Statement from Jo Silkstone, hate crime co-ordinator at disability charity United Response
“Sickening and cowardly online abuse towards vulnerable people with disabilities should absolutely be classed as a criminal offence, and we firmly back today’s report and the recommendations made by MPs.
“There is a shocking and clear inequality towards learning disabilities within hate crime law, with not all protected characteristics being treated the same. It also beggars belief that there are people out there intent on harming those with learning disabilities, many of whom are unaware they are being targeted.
“Government and social media firms must sit up and take notice that hundreds of thousands of people, including MPs, firmly agree that urgent action needs taking.
“Our own recent research shows that disability hate crimes in England and Wales have soared by a third in the past year. These mindless and increasing crimes include malicious communications and harassment, such as online abuse.
“We’ve already worked with West Yorkshire Police to create easy-read guidance to empower and train care workers and those with learning disabilities to speak out. We would welcome the chance to further contribute to tackling this issue – with the right backing from Government and the Crown Prosecution Service, we can bring justice to these bullies and bigots once and for all.”