04/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Disbelief and Ignorance to Anger and Action

Disability hate crime in the UK used to be an invisible crime. I remember my weary summer of phone-bashing to find cases in 2007, when the reaction of local police press officers (and even some prosecutors) was either "we don't have that problem here" or even, damningly, "what is disability hate crime?" I spent months gathering together around 50 cases, ranging from the nasty to the murderous, of crimes against disabled people in police force areas through England and Wales. Only one was investigated as a hate crime.

That disbelief and ignorance has fallen away. The latest conferences I've been to have marked a real change in attitude. Over the last two weeks I've spoken at a Crown Prosecution Service conference and at the Trades Union Congress. I've also participated in an "open space" event at the disability charity, Mencap.

Now police and prosecutors are only too keen to investigate and prosecute disability hate crime. And disabled people want action. Most of the pieces of the jigsaw are there - but it's still often too difficult to put it all together.

Although convictions are rising, many still fail because the victims, being disabled, are seen as "unreliable witnesses" who would not be believed in court. This is particularly true for people with mental health conditions or learning difficulties. Or the evidence is difficult to gather because many disabled people, particularly those with learning difficulties, are asked to keep a log of incidents against them - but can't read or write. Or, if they are deaf, they do not get the extra support they need in court to present their evidence (there is a real dearth of deaf interpreters, which can delay both evidence gathering and witness statements at a crucial time).

So there's good will there, but many cases fail. This is, perhaps, why I and many other campaigners want to go further back and look at what motivates offenders. If we can shift those attitudes - hard-wired as they are - perhaps we can prevent disability hate crime. I hosted a really fascinating discussion on prevention at the Mencap "open space" event. Police, prosecutors, social care professionals and disabled people all came up with good solutions - pair disabled people with police officers going into schools, for instance, so that they can tell it like it is to school-children, who are often hate crime offenders. Train disabled people as special constables (police volunteers) so that they are participating in the criminal justice system. Measure disability hate crime properly - because what gets measured is acted on, in the justice system. And report every incident, because then police can identify hate crime hotspots - and put extra policing in those locations. They are likely to be public transport and on the streets - so act there. Believe disabled people when they report crimes. And get disabled people's organisations and disability charities working together on disability hate crime rather than competing with each other for scarce funding. And ask trade unionists - on the buses, as housing officers and teachers - to challenge hate crime wherever they see it. Social networks play a part too - the more people talk to each other, the more they know about the patterns of hate crime - and how to challenge it. That's why our disability hate crime network, which I helped to found three years ago, is so important to our campaigning work now.

At last we're seeing the beginnings of a strategy here. That has to be good news. The handwringing is over - now we are seeing action.