Hate Crimes Against People With Disabilities

This paper was written by Mark Sherry, School of Social Work, University of Queensland, January 2000. Copyright 2000.

This paper examines hate crimes perpetrated against people with disabilities. One of my major themes is that disabled people are often more vulnerable to abuse than non-disabled people. I outline some of the differences between hate crimes committed against people with disabilities and those committed against other members of the community. I explain why it is absolutely essential that disabled people share in the protection of hate crimes legislation and examine some ways of responding to hate crimes against people with disabilities.

In this paper, I will discuss the hate crimes experienced by disabled people. I will also outline some of the differences between hate crimes committed against people with disabilities and those committed against other members of the community. One of my major themes is that disabled people are often more likely to experience hate crimes than non-disabled people. I will explain why it is absolutely essential that disabled people share in the protection of hate crimes legislation. Finally, I will address the issue of how to respond to hate crimes against people with disabilities.

What is a Hate Crime?

I understand the term “hate crime” to mean a criminal act perpetrated against someone because of an actual or perceived trait that they possess. These traits may include ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability. Bodinger-De Uriate and Sancho (1990) suggest that the following characteristics may indicate that a hate crime has occurred:

  • symbols or words associated with hate;
  • activities historically associated with threats to certain groups (e.g. burning crosses);
  • jokes which are demeaning and offensive;
  • destroying or defacing group symbols;
  • a history of crimes against other members of the group;
  • crimes occurring shortly after group activities or conflicts involving the group;
  • the belief of the victim that the action was motivated by bias;
  • perpetrators demeaning the victim’s group and exalting their own group;
  • the presence of hate group literature; and
  • previous hate crimes in the community.

US legislation has only recently broadened its concept of hate crimes to include those committed against people with disabilities. The first American indictments for disability hate crimes were issued in June this year. Associated Press reported that eight people were charged with kidnapping, harassment and conspiracy after an intellectually disabled man was tortured because of his disability (“New Jersey Charges 8 in landmark disabled Bias Case”, June 8, 1999). He was invited to a party where he was taped to a chair, his eyebrows were shaved, he was burned with cigarettes, and he was choked and beaten before being abandoned in a forest. He had previously been attacked at two other parties.

The Forgotten Victims

In many ways, people with disabilities are the forgotten victims of hate crimes. As Oliver (1996:107) comments: ‘If able-bodied children were taken from their local school, sent to a foreign country, forced to undertake physical exercise for all their waking hours to the neglect of their academic education and social development, we would regard it as unacceptable and the children concerned would rapidly come to the attention of the child protection Mafia. But in the lives of disabled children (and adults too), anything goes as long as you call it therapeutic.’

The widespread failure to recognise hate crimes against disabled people may be related to the fact that violence towards disabled people is often considered acceptable. Indeed, a whole language has developed which differentiates violence against disabled people from other violence. Terms like “aversive treatment” are frequently applied to describe assaults on disabled people; “time out” is a phrase used to mean being locked in a dark room for days without human contact; and “neglect” can mean being tortured. Luckasson (1992) highlights the importance of language when it comes to crimes against people with a disability. He suggests that crimes against people with disabilities are often classed simply as “abuse” or “neglect” rather than naming them “crimes”. Yet these forms of abuse can include hitting, violating someone’s body, and torturing and killing a person. For any other member of the community, they would automatically be considered crimes. Williams (1995:111) also makes this point very eloquently:’Women with learning disabilities are ‘sexually abused’ – other women are raped. Men with learning disabilities are ‘physically abused’ – other men are assaulted. Steal something from someone with learning disabilities and it is ‘financial abuse’, not theft. Offenders against the general community are criminals – those who victimise people with learning disabilities are ‘abusers’.

It is probably not surprising then that Faces of Hate, a recent edition of articles on hate crimes in Australia edited by Cunneen, Fraser and Tomsen (1997) did not include any references to hate crimes against disabled people. People with disabilities are often ignored when human rights issues are discussed. Our concerns are often unheard and unnoticed; our exclusion shows that we are extremely marginalised.

Despite a widespread failure to include disabled people in discussions of hate crimes, we are more likely to be abused than non-disabled people, and hate crimes against us are often chronic and severe. Wolbring (1994:1) comments that “disabled people are the highest risk group for abuse and violence and society isn’t even aware of the problem”. In an American survey conducted in 1995 and 1996, issues of violence and abuse were rated the number one priority by disabled women (Berkeley Planning Associates). The survey found that women with disabilities not only experience physical, emotional and verbal abuse, but that they also may be denied essential medications, attendant services or access to assistive devices. Abusive carers included family members, paid staff and intimate partners.

Sobsey (1994) suggests that a disabled person is at least one and a half times more likely to be the victim of assault or abuse than other people of similar age and gender. Compared to nondisabled people of the same age and gender, disabled people typically experience more prolonged and severe abuse, with more serious effects. Indeed, Sobsey suggests that disabled people may be five times more likely to experience severe abuse and multiple victimizations. Sobsey’s findings of incredibly high rates of abuse are consistent with Australian studies. For instance, the National Police Research Unit at Flinders University studied 174 people with an intellectual disability and found that they were 10 times more likely to have experienced abuse than non-disabled people (cited in Llewelyn-Scorey, 1998). Chenoweth (1993) sees the over-prescription of psychotropic drugs and the sterilization of disabled women as symbols of insidious violence against disabled women.

It would be fair to say that silent acceptance of violence and abuse of disabled people is more common than activism against it. Hate crimes against people with disabilities are rife in the community, especially institutional settings. As Westcott (1994:191) comments, “Children and young people in institutional care can be rendered extremely powerless; this coupled with their isolation makes them easy victims for those wishing to abuse them”. On the 28th of March 1993, the Sun-Herald published a story entitled “Hostel of Horror” which detailed more hate crimes experienced by disabled people. Under the heading “Residents Suffer Amid Killings, Sex Assaults”, it alleged that two people in an NSW boarding house had died and many people had been physically, sexually and psychologically abused. It said that residents were often threatened with “the needle”. Department of Community Services inspectors had recommended the closure of the institution for more than 20 years, but these recommendations had been ignored.

The involvement of the state in hate crimes against people with disabilities is a central feature of our experiences. Legal and bureaucratic systems have been deeply implicated in some of the worst cases of violence, abuse and hate crimes directed at disabled people. Sexual and physical assaults have been commonplace in many state institutions. The Inquiry into the Basil Stafford Centre in Queensland (1995) found that many unlawful assaults had occurred at the Centre as well as gross neglect of clients. It also found an “insidious institutional culture” existed at the Centre which stifled and discouraged the reporting of abuse. Similarly, in 1991, the Victorian Community Visitors Board (1991) reported on the institutional abuse which disabled people have experienced. Crimes against disabled people which were uncovered include sexual assault, illegal restraint and seclusion, child abuse, battery, violation of legal rights, degradation, unusually high death rates, denial of medical treatment, chemical restraint, wrongful imprisonment and neglect. Again, in 1996, an inquiry by the New South Wales Government into residential care for intellectually and physically disabled people found an entrenched “culture of abuse” (physical, emotional and sexual) in both public and private institutions (Sydney Morning Herald 30 November 1996:3). A failure to protect the most basic human rights and to provide safe residential services for disabled people was also found in a 1996 Inquiry into a fire in Melbourne which killed nine intellectually disabled men (The Australian, 10 April 1996).

Sobsey (1994) comments that an abusive subculture sometimes dominates institutions such as group homes, hospitals and boarding houses. In this context abuse is encouraged and seen as normal. When investigations occur, cover-ups are commonplace. Power imbalances are maintained by the use of compliance training, drugs, locks, physical force, restraints and aversive therapy.

Why are so many disabled people victims of hate crimes?

Social, cultural, economic, physical and psychological factors all contribute to a climate in which disabled people become the victims of hate crimes. Such factors include:

  • negative attitudes towards disability;
  • the exclusion, isolation and poverty of disabled people and their families;
  • lack of supports, advocacy and safeguards;
  • cultural support for violence;
  • gender and power imbalances;
  • the level of abuse in state institutions;
  • negative attitudes towards various groups of people (eg. women, children, gays);
  • the nature of the disability; and
  • perceptions about the credibility of disabled victims.

Many disabled people are isolated from mainstream society. Our marginalisation and disempowerment contributes significantly to our victimisation. Negative attitudes towards disability have played a major role in making us more vulnerable to hate crimes. These negative attitudes objectify, devalue and dehumanise us. When we are dehumanised, it is easier to justify segregating us in institutions, sterilising us against our will, forcing us to work for unacceptably low wages and committing crimes against us. In a climate of imposed hopelessness and disenfranchisement, hate crimes flourish.

Disabled people who require assistance with intimate care activities such as washing, dressing and using the toilet can be particularly susceptible to sexual abuse. Similarly, people can be trained to be complaint and made to feel that they have little control over what happens to their bodies. A woman with polio has described how professional interventions made her vulnerable to abuse by a hospital porter when she was a child: “What the doctors did, they lifted up my nightdress they poked her and they pushed her without asking me, without doing anything, but in front of a load of other people it was absolutely no different, I didn’t say no to any doctor, the porter actually was to me doing absolutely nothing different at all that every doctor or nurses had ever done.” (Quoted in Westcott, 1994:193).

Those who commit hate crimes against disabled people are often given lighter sentences than others who commit similar offences against nondisabled victims. This suggests that crimes against us are considered in some way less important. The belief that disabled people are less human than others, that we are damaged goods, devalues us and trivialises the hate crimes we experience. Let me give you some examples from Dick Sobsey’s book Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities (1994). When a 24 year old intellectually disabled man was tortured, forced to lick the toilet bowl and beaten to death by four people, the judge is reported to have said “the assaults were not serious”. Another disabled man was buried alive in a box and killed by a carer whose only punishment was that he was prohibited from working as a carer for two years. He received no jail time. Similarly, a teacher chose not to report an incident where seven boys attacked and sexually assaulted a 13 year old disabled student in her own schoolyard. All these actions indicate that offences against disabled people are somehow less serious than offences against other community members.

Sobsey suggests that the four most common offenders against disabled people are disability service providers, acquaintances and neighbours, family members, and other disabled people. Approximately two-thirds of the people who abused someone with an intellectual disability met that person through a disability service. Sobsey concludes that “much off the excess risk of abuse experienced by people with disabilities may result from their exposure to the (disability) service system”.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for people in positions of power to dismiss or ignore complaints of assault or abuse made by disabled people and to treat us as unreliable witnesses. The Intellectual Disability Rights Service (IDRS:1991) in Sydney has recorded some of the typical experiences of intellectually disabled people in this regard:’IDRS is often contacted by parents or staff who are distressed and confused by the non responsiveness of police and similar authorities when crimes have been reported. It appears that many police are reluctant to pursue allegations where the main witness is a person with an intellectual disability. It is recognised that police do and must have some discretion in determining what matters have sufficient prospects of success. However, it appears that some police have little if any appreciation of the capacities of people with an intellectual disability, and automatically assume they are unable to give evidence in court. As a result, many allegations are not even investigated.

Of course, intellectually disabled people are not the only disabled people whose complaints are automatically dismissed. I belong to a brain injury survivors group. One of my friends was the victim of a hate crime who faced similar prejudices from the police. He was violently attacked and pushed off the third story of a high-rise building. He fractured his skull and received other serious injuries, but he had no witnesses. Police said that due to his head injury his memory must be considered unreliable and no charges were ever laid. He received no compensation for these injuries.

There are many Australian examples in the literature of lenient responses to hate crimes against people with disabilities. For instance, Judge (1987) reviews 13 cases where parents killed their children with disabilities. The crimes were committed through various means including shooting, poisoning, strangulation, drowning, burning and drug overdoses. In 11 of these 13 cases, the parent was not sentenced to jail. The fact that these crimes were committed by parents is not coincidental: many hate crimes are inflicted upon disabled people by family members, partners or carers who are employed to look after the welfare of the person. The greater the number of carers a disabled person has, the greater the risk of a hate crime being committed.

Responding to Hate Crimes

One of the typical responses to hate crimes is penalty enhancement. Hate crimes are seen to warrant harsher penalties because of the emotional harm they inflict on their victims, as well as their likelihood of promoting retaliatory crimes and inciting community unrest (Levin, 1999). I agree that hate crimes legislation is important because it sends a message to offenders that hate crimes will not be tolerated. But I feel that hate crimes legislation is only one element in creating safer communities. Other strategies must also be adopted which reduce the vulnerability of disabled people. These include a change in public attitudes towards disability, an end to segregation, improved service provider practices, and support for disabled people who are victims of hate crimes.

A Change in Attitudes Towards Disability

A change in attitudes is absolutely essential. This attitudinal change must start by acknowledging that human differences should be celebrated (not shunned) and that everyone’s dignity must be respected. Breaking down segregation, and in particular closing segregated institutions which have fostered abuse, is a key element in ensuring that disabled people are not at risk.

Improved Service Provider Practices

Westcott (1994) suggests a number of changes to service provider practices which may reduce the risk of abuse:

  • Improved vetting procedures for employing staff so that convicted paedophiles and abusers are unable to obtain work as residential care staff or carers; and
  • Staff training in recognising signs of possible abuse and responding to abuse. This would involve standard protocols for reporting abuse to the police and ensuring investigations occur quickly. Staff who report fellow workers should be supported by the service.

Domestic violence shelters can also improve their ability to address the needs of disabled clients. Some organisations have worked hard to provide accessible services, despite funding restraints, but shelters which accommodate the needs of disabled women are still rare. For instance, Nosek, Howland and Young (1998) suggest that many shelters and refuges are inaccessible, they lack interpreter services for deaf women, and they cannot accommodate women who need assistance with the activities of daily living or medications. Some women with disabilities, such as those with quadriplegia, have been referred to hospitals or institutions because of the lack of appropriate supports in shelters.

Support for Victims

People with disabilities who are the victims of hate crimes need support. Empowering disabled people to resist hate crimes is incredibly important in reducing the chances of further victimisation. Abuse prevention programs can improve personal safety skills and increase self-esteem and assertiveness. Supports, safeguards and advocacy need to be put in place so that people’s rights are protected. Carers may need to be supported as well.


Disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to experience hate crimes. And perpetrators are more likely to receive leniency in sentencing if the victim is a disabled person. So hate crimes legislation is an important step in defending the rights of disabled people and ensuring that perpetrators receive appropriate punishment. But it is equally important to eliminate the systemic issues which create a climate in which such crimes can flourish, and to develop a system that enables appropriate responses for victims when hate crimes occur.


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Berkeley Planning Associates “Service Needs of Women With Disabilities: Disabled Women Rate Caregiver Abuse and Domestic Violence Number One Issue”

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Cocks, K. (1999) “Editorial”, Queensland Advocacy Incorporated Newsletter July, p.1

Cunneen, C, Fraser, D. and Tomsen, S. (1997) Faces of Hate: Hate Crime in Australia, Hawkins Press, Leichhardt.

Intellectual Disability Rights Service, (1991) Five Years of Rights: 1986-1991: Further Up The Hill, Redfern Legal Centre, Redfern.

Judge, C. (1987) Civilization and Mental Retardation: A History of the Care and Treatment of Mentally Retarded People, Melbourne, Cliff Judge.

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Westcott, H. (1994) “Abuse of Children and Adults who are Disabled” in French, S (ed) On Equal Terms: Working With Disabled People, Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford, pp.190-206.

Williams, C. (1995) Invisible Victims: Crime and Abuse Against People With Learning Disabilities, Jessica Kingsley, London.

Wolbring, G. (1994) “Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People With Disabilities”.