I Was Attacked For Being Disabled

Paige Tabone was brutally attacked in a Portsmouth nightclub simply for being disabled. Here she makes a passionate plea for changes to the law, police procedure and public attitudes.

Many scenarios go through your head before a night out. You imagine stumbling around singing with your friends or regretting the kebab that seemed like a good idea at the time. What you never imagine, though, is getting violently assaulted. A night in November 2014 ended just that way for me; and all because I was in a wheelchair.

Last year, The Independent reported on a Freedom of Information request that revealed ‘hate crimes recorded by police [rose] to 2,765 incidents in 2014-15 compared to 1,955 incidents in 2013-14’ – an increase of 41% in just one year. Since it was first made a criminal offence in 2007, prosecutions for disability related hate crimes have risen by an unbelievable 213% in Great Britain alone.

But does our justice system work for the victims? It didn’t for me.

My injuries included bruising, scratches and scarring. I needed months of counselling to deal with the emotional damage I incurred. But despite the police arriving immediately at the crime scene, my attacker was set free the same night with a £50 fine. I was told there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove I was targeted purely due to my disability.

But months after the incident, the officer who had arrived at the crime scene candidly told me that if I’d been a person of colour my assailant would have faced a far worse punishment than a fine. Why? What is it that makes one form of hate offence more or less unjust than another?

Statistics UK reports that nearly 68% of all race- or religion-oriented crimes are escalated to court proceedings compared with only 32% of disability related offences.

Lord Ken MacDonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, believes this anomaly is down to a lack of knowledge amongst police. He told me, ‘We don’t seem to have latched on to the fact yet that this has happened to them simply because they’re disabled. They [the police] are looking for a deeper meaning in the attack, than just simply prosecuting them for discrimination … it’s down to a simple training fault.’

According to the Metropolitan Police Service’s online training guide, officers must complete a two year probation period during which they complete the Initial Police Learning and Development Programme (IPLDP). They learn about public protection and basic crime prevention (which has a sub-section for hate crime). But up until 2010 there was no mention of disability hate crime in the core training and with no follow-up training required, it is easy to see how the police are not properly equipped to deal with this new type of misdemeanour.

Hate crime is not just physical. Online emotional abuse is now just as often reported to police as bodily harm.

Calum Faulkner is an 18-year-old student from Berkshire who suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Last year he went to the police after falling foul of online hate. ‘I started to receive horrible and personal messages over social media sites, they’d say things like “go f*** yourself cripple”’.

Calum tried to ignore the messages but they kept coming. After several months of suffering in silence he acted.

‘I went straight down to my local police station with printed copies of the messages and without investigation they simply told me to contact the website to get it sorted, and that there was nothing they could do for me.’

As the messages contained no threats of physical violence, the police dismissed his case. But he argues that he suffered as much from this “virtual” violence as he would have done from physical abuse. ‘I couldn’t leave the house for weeks. I refused to go into college because I was convinced that the people sending the messages would be there.’ He added, ‘I might [as] well have just been hit – at least then people could see the hurt that had been caused.’

It’s not just the police who are confused about the seriousness of disability hate crime. Society must understand at what point a few nasty words or an altercation becomes something more grave.

I surveyed the public to find out what they really know about hate crime and I was shocked by some of the results. Nearly a quarter of the respondents believed that a hate crime exclusively involved racist or homophobic language. 23% believed that only an act of physical violence could be defined as a hate crime. Only 6% mentioned that offences against disabled people could count as hate crimes. Most troublingly to me, though, a clear majority didn’t even know hate crime existed as a separate category under the law.

To me that’s the problem: most of us are so ill-informed about the law that we simply don’t know what is wrong with it. And too little is being done to combat the crisis. I contacted several MPs and numerous government officials to discuss this. All declined to comment.

We urgently need change because the number of victims is ever-growing. The Disability Hate Crime Network, a volunteer-based organisation, surveyed the UK’s disabled community and found that 57% of respondents had suffered an attack on the street. One fifth had received abuse on public transport and a quarter experienced incidents at home. Many said they had been the victims of cruelty and bullying on social media, just like Calum.

If we carry on as we are we may devolve into a society of prehistoric brutes grunting about our dislike for people with slightly big ears. I’d rather we all calmed down a bit and took a deep breath; humanity has enough battles to face, without us fighting – and hating – amongst ourselves.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.