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Online abuse and the experience of disabled people: First Report of Session 2017–19

Report, together with formal minutes relating to the report

Social media is a means for people to organise, campaign and share experiences. It helps them to access services, manage their careers, shop, date and navigate a society that is too often designed without disabled people in mind. The disabled people we heard from were some of social media’s most enthusiastic users. However, their experiences and Katie Price’s petition highlight the extreme level of abuse that disabled people receive online—not just on social media, but in online games, web forums, newspaper comments sections and elsewhere. It is shameful that disabled people have had to leave social media whilst their abusers continue unchecked. Self-regulation of social media has failed disabled people.

We agree with Katie Price’s petition that the law on online abuse is not fit for purpose. Laws which cannot act against fake child pornography designed to mock a disabled child and his family cannot be considered adequate. Online abuse can destroy people’s careers, their social lives and do lasting damage to their health. People should not have to avoid their town centre, local park or place of work to avoid sustained abuse, mockery and threats. Online spaces are just as important in the modern world and should be treated as such.

Our recommendations focus on the experiences of disabled people as told to us during our inquiry and consultation events. We recognise there is wider work to do on the law on online abuse and the governance of social media. This is being taken up by other Select Committees. Our conclusions and recommendations should be read as a contribution to the conversation around online abuse, disability and the responsibility to ensure that offline and online spaces are safe and inclusive. For our part, our recommendations

include:

• The Government and social media companies must directly consult with disabled people on digital strategy and hate crime law. It is not enough to just provide alternative formats—though that is crucially important—or consult with self-appointed representatives.

• Social media companies need to accept their responsibility for allowing toxic environments to exist unchallenged. They must ensure that their mechanisms and settings for managing content are accessible to and appropriate for all disabled people. They need to be more proactive in searching for and removing hateful and abusive content. They must demonstrate that they have worked in partnership with disabled people to achieve this.

• The Government needs to recognise that the way disabled people are often marginalised offline plays a significant part in the abuse they receive online. It needs to challenge stereotypes and prejudices about disabled people, particularly among children and young people, and require proportionate representation of disabled people in its advertising.

• Disability hate crime is not fully recognised and perpetrators are not appropriately punished. The law on hate crime must give disabled people the same protections as those who suffer hate crime due to race or religion.

• The criminal justice system is too quick to categorise disabled people as “vulnerable”. Hostility towards disabled people is often based on a perception that they are an easy target who can’t contribute to society. The Government must recognise the links between prejudice against disabled people and their perceived vulnerability. Crimes against disabled people by reason of their disability should be recorded and sentenced as hate crimes.

• It must be possible to see if someone has been convicted of a hate crime on the grounds of disability before employing them to work closely with disabled people. If the Government acts on our other recommendations, this should be possible through a Disclosure and Barring Service check.

• The Government must review the experience of disabled people when reporting crimes and giving evidence. Too many disabled people have not been treated seriously because frontline officers and staff do not understand disability. Training and support is needed to overcome this. Good practice is too often isolated to a few specially trained police officers and initiatives.

• The Government needs to review the law on exploitation within friendships or relationships. Social media companies need to review their processes and provide advice and support for those who identify as needing additional protection. In doing so, both Government and social media companies must consult directly with disabled people and respect their rights to make their own decisions about their lives.