Opinion: disability sheds a light on the complexities of how we name and respond to hate

By Claire Edwards and Nicola Maxwell, UCC

The government’s recent public consultation on hate speech marks a growing recognition of the failure of Irish society and legislation to adequately address acts of hate in the State. Hate crime refers to acts motivated by bias or prejudice based on axes of a person's identity, including race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability. 

For many years, civil society groups, academics and others have been fighting to raise awareness of hate crime as it is experienced by multiple groups in Irish society, and have highlighted the inadequacy of current legislative protections in the form of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. While the An Garda Síochána Diversity and Integration Strategy 2019-2021 recently published a working definition of hate crime, Ireland still does not have specific hate crime legislation.

One group who appear in the Gardaí’s new definition of hate crime are people with disabilities. While institutional abuse experienced by people with disabilities has been well-documented, particularly through scandals such as Áras Attracta, disability hate crime is little talked about within Ireland and, with some exceptions, appears peripheral in hate crime campaigns. This is in marked contrast to a number of other European countries where disability hate crime has become visible and politicised as an issue by people with disabilities and their organisations.

From RTÉ One News, report on a new working definition for hate crime launched by Garda commissioner

Over the past two years, we have been conducting a major qualitative study entitled Disability and the Creation of Safe(r) Space, which explores how issues of hostility and safety shape people with disabilities’ everyday lives in Ireland, including the spaces and places that they use. Many people with disabilities who participated in the study reported experiencing some form of hostility in the community, ranging from physical assault and theft through to "micro-aggressions" in public spaces, including name-calling and verbal abuse.

Despite this, we found an ambivalence amongst participants – including people with disabilities, disability organisations, local practitioners, and some government policymakers – about the need for hate crime legislation, and whether indeed hate against people with disabilities existed in Ireland, particularly compared with other countries and groups in society.

Naming hate, understanding disability

Key to understanding these perceptions is the issue of how we name things. Many participants in the study suggested that people with disabilities might not be subject to hate, but experience hostility or crime because they are seen as an "easy target". Others queried whether, for example, kids throwing stones at a house where a person with a disability lived was a hate crime or simply ignorance.

These points speak directly to how society itself understands disability. Those studying disability hate crime have recognised how the association of disability with vulnerability and dependency means that incidents perpetrated against people with disabilities may be understood as abuse, but not as crimes. Consequently, incidents of hate crime may not be taken seriously, or pursued through the criminal justice system. Paternalism in the context of disability also means that certain types of incidents or crimes can appear particularly taboo, as one of our research participants stated of sexual assault, for example: "There is this block where…because we’re so busy infantilising and caring for people with disabilities we can’t conceive of them as a victim of sexual violence".

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, report on Government's ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2018, Ireland is still in the early stages of embracing rights for people with disabilities. But attitudes die hard, policy change is slow and the association between disability and vulnerability remains a pervasive theme in Irish society. Basic rights still have to be won to enable people with disabilities to live independently in the community.  

Participants in our study appeared wary of hate crime talk because of concerns about what it would do to disabled people’s personhood. In other words, would it promote their rights, or reinforce perceptions of vulnerability and lead to further stigmatisation? Some participants suggested that discussion of hate crime could be used as a justification for overprotection and to prevent people moving from institutionalised settings into the community.

There is little doubt that there is a need for greater recognition of hostility experienced by people with disabilities, and for workable hate crime legislation in the State. Despite uncertainties about how to make sense of hate, many people with disabilities and disability organisations suggested that if there was a hate crime movement and legislation, disability should very much be a part of it.

Acts of hostility and hate have to be understood as part of a wider set of discriminatory societal attitudes and barriers which construct  people with disabilities as "other"

But hate crime legislation is only one part of the jigsaw. Acts of hostility and hate have to be understood as part of a wider set of discriminatory societal attitudes and barriers which construct disability and people with disabilities as "other". If people with disabilities are to live free from hate, hostility, and violence, we have to tackle the attitudes of local communities, and address multiple structural barriers, including access to appropriate and secure housing, and community supports, which will enable them to live safe, inclusive, lives.

A one day seminar as part of the Irish Research Council-funded Disability and the Creation of Safe(r) Space project will be held at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission office in Dublin tomorrow (Friday December 6th). 

Dr Claire Edwards is director of the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21) and Lecturer in the School of Applied Social Studies, at UCC. Nicola Maxwell is Lecturer in the School of Applied Social Studies and Research Associate with ISS21 at UCC.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ