The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is appealing to disabled people to come forward with evidence of their own experiences of disability-related intimidation and violence.
The evidence call is part of the EHRC’s inquiry into what public bodies and transport providers are doing to eliminate disability-related harassment and its causes.
The EHRC is threatening to take legal action against councils, police forces, schools, and bus and train companies which are failing in their legal duties to prevent disability-related harassment.
The inquiry is looking at how disabled victims of harassment – ranging from name-calling, offensive graffiti and cyber-bullying to damage to property, financial exploitation, rape and murder – have been supported by public bodies and transport providers across England, Scotland and Wales.
It will also ask what public bodies have done to prevent such harassment, and examine its causes.
Crown Prosecution Service figures for the two years to March 2009 found on average that more than one person every working day was appearing in court charged with a disability hate crime, while EHRC evidence suggests many more incidents go unreported or are not dealt with properly by public bodies.
An EHRC spokeswoman said the 12 per cent cut in the EHRC’s budget demanded by the government would not affect the inquiry.
Anne Novis, who leads on hate crime issues for the UK Disabled People’s Council, said she hoped disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) would influence and lead the inquiry and be its “main voice”.
She said this would allow disabled people to show how little had been done to prevent harassment and “how little support we get and how hard to is to access justice services due to the barriers we face”.
Novis said she hoped the EHRC would identify the guidance and support that public services need “to be proactive” but also “use their powers to penalise those who do nothing to comply with the relevant disability duties”.
Mike Smith, the EHRC commissioner leading the inquiry and chair of its disability committee, said harassment was “an everyday part of life for many disabled people”.
He said the inquiry would help public bodies “ensure that future tragedies are prevented and transform the way that the people of Britain value and respect disabled people”.
Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the National Disability Hate Crime Network, welcomed the launch of the evidence-gathering part of the inquiry.
He said too many public bodies used data protection laws as an excuse not to share information with other agencies about disability hate crime.
Brookes added: “Too many disabled people do not report acts of hostility for the simple reason they feel they won’t be believed, and our aim is to ensure that this inquiry leads to ways to stop hate crime and make all agencies start taking their responsibility to disabled people more seriously.”
Maria Miller MP, the new Conservative minister for disabled people, welcomed the inquiry and urged disabled people and DPOs to submit evidence, both about incidents of harassment and with examples of “positive work being done to tackle disability hate crime”.
This “first wave” of evidence will be collected until 10 September, and can be given through the EHRC website, by email or via its helpline.
There will also be evidence-gathering events around Britain over the next three months, with 13 already organised. These events will be publicised locally, and disabled people and organisations of and for disabled people will be invited.
The commission is also likely to use its legal powers to force public bodies and witnesses to give evidence, with hearings set to take place from September.
The EHRC has already written to Hinckley and Bosworth council, asking it for evidence that it is meeting its legal duties, following last year’s inquest into the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her disabled daughter Francecca.
The EHRC said it could not say what action resulted from the letter for legal reasons.
A council spokeswoman said: “All I can say at the moment is that the council is working with the EHRC to alleviate their concerns.”
For information on how to give evidence to the inquiry, visit www.equalityhumanrights.com/disabilityharassmentfi
News provided by John Pring