I was called a ‘s**z’ for the first time when I was six years old.
It was said unflinchingly and casually by another child. I told a teacher at the primary school I attended, and she told me not to take it to heart – that it was just ignorance.
This incident shifted my world on its axis. It was the first time I felt an ‘otherness’ about my existence; and I felt it with a cutting, stinging clarity.
I was born with Cerebral Palsy – a condition that means I use a wheelchair full-time and have a speech impediment. This primary school interaction was my introduction to the script you have to accept when you’re disabled.
But that’s not how it should be; disabled people shouldn’t have to accept psychical or verbal abuse.
We should be able to go about our daily lives without this sort of fear – and if we are subjected to some form of abuse, we should be able to trust that the police will do their best to respond to it appropriately.
I know this; and yet it’s easy to become desensitised when I receive comments daily about whether I’m brain damaged or whether I can have sex.
I hear things like: ‘You’re pretty, it’s a shame about what happened to you.’ I get asked intimate questions about the nature of my disability from people mocking my slurred speech.
I’ve been told by strangers that they can ‘f**k me better’. I’ve had my bra straps very deliberately moved under cover of being ‘helped.’
If I respond, I’m told that no offence was meant or that I’m too sensitive. There are endless excuses and justifications from broader society for the abuse I receive, whether in person or online.
I used to explain away these actions, too: ‘They were just ignorant – the onus is on me – and remains on me – to educate them, calcium carbonate xo to teach them empathy, to navigate the world with understanding and to accept the lifelong target on my back.’
But no one can remain unaltered from experiencing so much hate.
Before the pandemic, a man grabbed hold of the back of my wheelchair without my consent.
I don’t know his reasoning. I asked him to let me go, with the words ‘please no’ on repeat.
He only listened to me when another non-disabled man intervened because I was visibly terrified – desperate and begging to be released.
I didn’t report it to the police.
I have watched news events that led me not to trust them, including the Sarah Everard case and the police’s reaction to it.
I have also heard first-hand accounts from other disabled people of the police not understanding disability and neglecting to treat incidents like those I’ve endured as serious crimes.
These are the moments that change me the most. Assaults make me wary, which means I flinch away from strangers. These moments are when I feel splintered.
Another such moment occurred recently.
A group of young boys hurled abuse at me on the street and told me that they would steal my wheelchair because I couldn’t do anything about it.
One said, ‘your legs don’t f***ing work, do they?’
It was relentless and I tried not to react or let them grab my wheelchair as they threatened to throw me out of it and leave me on the ground.
After a while I was able to get away. I didn’t report the incident to the police.
We’re taught by broader society and by those around us to educate those who might harm us, and to exercise understanding towards the people who abuse us – to see their humanity, even as they flatten our own.
Non-disabled people aren’t taught the same about us – it’s a simple truth and a radical statement.
Disabled people have a right to feel safe in society and to feel secure when reporting hate crimes.
Yet, according to disability group Leonard Cheshire’s Director of Policy, Gemma Hope, ‘many disabled people we have spoken to said they wouldn’t report the hate crime they experienced’.
‘The stories we’ve heard suggest many police officers do not have a good understanding of disability,’ she says.
It’s clear there needs to be recognition, acknowledgement and education around how the system fails us.
We need campaigns, specialist liaison officers and more work to eradicate the root causes of prejudice.
As a disabled woman, I am inundated with personal, human stories of disabled people experiencing abuse. Whether it’s when trying to get on a bus or more general verbal abuse and ridicule.
And as I’ve seen evidence that the police don’t provide a good response and don’t understand the prejudices involved, reporting a hate crime has never occurred to me.
The system exhausts disabled people.
In 2020/2021, there were over 9,200 disability hate crime reports to police in England and Wales, with half classified as ‘violent’, which means they involved assault and possession of weapons.
Unfortunately, the problem has only worsened in recent years. Repeat offender rates escalated rapidly 89%, up on 2019/20.
Yet, just 1% of cases were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service or charged – 9,200 reports correlate to around 25 a day.
This has altered the lives of disabled people and changed not only the way we view the world, but also our place within it.
Disabled people grow alongside ableism, which is the belief that non-disabled people are worth more than disabled people. It shapes us.
We know its impacts – how it taints our lives, the bias, the prejudice.
The reality is that this crime isolates us. It’s insidious and the scale of it feels overwhelming, but every statistic is essential.
I hope that future disabled children don’t have to live with the shift, the alteration in myself and in my outlook that I had to live with – and which remains.
The 9,200 people – and those who are not recorded – deserve so much better.
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