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Sunday, 21 September 2014

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Disabled people across Cumbria urged to speak out against abuse

Crime statistics are a valuable tool in the armoury of any police force.

Terry Bathgate photo
Terry Bathgate

In Cumbria, the real value of one particular crime statistic from last year lies mostly in what it has not revealed.

“Our figures for 2012 showed only 17 disability hate crimes were reported to us, which was a surprise,” said Chief Inspector Terry Bathgate.

Yet in the same period, the force had 166 reports of race hate crime.

“But national research suggests that disability hate crime is under-reported for a number of reasons. In Cumbria, I believe there should be hundreds – if not thousands – of such crimes reported.

“But often there are issues around people having the confidence to come forward.

“People may have put up with this sort of thing for most of their life and perhaps they’ve learned to accept it. They may even have changed their routines so that they can avoid confrontation.

“We aim to break that cycle, and make people aware that they don’t have to accept it.”

Senior officers are determined to reach out to those who have learned to suffer in silence. The force has vowed to crack down hard on perpetrators.

At the Heathlands Project for people with learning disabilities near Carlisle, it took only a few minutes to find evidence that suggests the 17 disability hate crimes reported last year were indeed just the tip of much larger iceberg.

Several people spoke of their experiences, all confirming that their disability has made them a target.

The story told by 29-year-old Carlisle man Paul Major was typical. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, he said he has learned over the years to cope with negative reactions from people.

“They don’t understand your condition,” he said.

“I’ve had name-calling and abuse. It makes you feel upset and angry. I try not to take it too personally. This is the way I am. But the way you’re treated matters a lot. You should be accepted for who and what you are.”

Chris McConnon, 25, also from Carlisle, recalled being regularly bullied while at school.

“Once they tripped me up, and I hurt my knee,” he said, recalling one incident. The day before the interview, he said, he saw a friend with learning disabilities being bullied by two schoolgirls in the Lanes in Carlisle.

“It’s so wrong on so many levels,” he said.

Simon Ward, 23, said he too had been bullied. “I’ve been punched,” he said.

Heathlands manager Bill Parkin said: “Our project is a reporting centre for disability hate crime, and occasionally we hear about nasty cases: it might be a brick through the window, or eggs thrown at someone’s door.

“It can be traumatic for those on the receiving end. It can alter their perception of when they are safe to go out of the house. It can limit their lives.”

Another Cumbrian with a real understanding of disability hate crime is Margaret Burrow MBE.

Now aged 72, she has been disabled for nearly 40 years, and has spent the last 31 years in a wheelchair. As honorary secretary of a south Cumbrian disability association, she is acutely aware of the need to tackle disability hate crime.

She said: “People’s perceptions of your ability change: they talk more loudly to you, more slowly, and the majority of the time they speak to the person who is pushing your wheelchair.”

In her role as a campaigner on disability issues, she has heard many accounts of how people can be abused simply for appearing different from others.

“It knocks your confidence, and disabled people can become conditioned to think that it’s acceptable. But it’s not.”

Cumbria Constabulary’s Assistant Chief Constable Jerry Graham said: “Police officers have a duty to protect communities and particularly the most vulnerable in our society.

“Targeting someone based on their real or perceived vulnerability is inexcusable – but we can only take action when we know a crime has taken place.

“Hate crime in any form is unacceptable and we need the help of the whole community. We need the public to not turn a blind eye and instead support those with physical, mental or learning disabilities by contacting police if you witness them being targeted.

“Everyone deserves the right to enjoy their lives free from the fear of crime, violence or being bullied.

Anyone who thinks that they have the right to intimidate or assault an innocent member of the public deserves to be prosecuted. The police, CPS and other agencies held a number of conferences and meetings with disabled people and disability advocacy groups over the past 18 months.

“They told us that it wasn’t unusual for them to be shouted at, slapped, spat at or even have chewing gum thrown at them as they went about their daily business.

“The majority also said that they didn’t report this to police because they hadn’t realised this behaviour could be considered criminal.

“This is incredibly concerning and if this is happening in Cumbria, we need to take action.

“So, as part of this campaign, police officers will be visiting disability day centres and groups across the county to speak to disabled people and make it clear that this sort of treatment is a crime and is unacceptable – and we are there to support them.

“We don’t want anyone to suffer in silence, so if you or anyone you know has been a victim of hate crime, then contact police immediately, so that we can support victims and bring offenders to justice.”

Alison Mutch, CPS North West Area Hate Crime Co-ordinator, said there was a mismatch between the amount of abuse being reported by disabled people in surveys and what is reported to the police.

She said: “We can only prosecute cases when they are brought to the attention of the police.

“ If you think you are being targeted because of your disability or know someone that is then please tell someone and report it.

“If you see this happening challenge it, report it and together we can stop it.

“The CPS has been working with communities and schools to ensure that young people are aware of what disability hate crime is.

“Feedback from disabled people and other agencies told us that we needed to do more to ensure that young people are more aware of what disability hate crime is.

“This led to us working with disabled people and schools across the north west to develop a resource for schools to raise awareness of disability hate crime and ensure that young people understand its impact of on the victim and the potential consequences for the perpetrator.

“We are also urging both primary and secondary schools to work with young people to educate them about disability hate crime.

“The resource can be found at www.cps.gov.uk/northwest/tackling_crime/hate_crime/schools_project _disability_hate_crime/.”

The current eight week campaign urges victims of disability hate crime to report their experiences to a police officer or a friend, so that action can be taken.

If victims or witnesses do not feel comfortable approaching the police, they are encouraged to attend Third Party Reporting Centres across the county which offer a neutral and safe location where they can report an incident without having to speak directly to a police officer.

For a full list of reporting centres please log on to www.cumbria.police.uk/advice-and-information/reporting-a-crime/hate-crime-and-incidents.

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