I’m With Sam: Tackling learning disability hate crime with Dimensions

| Lauren Wallace-Thompson

Imagine you have been have been shouted at and called names as you walked home, spat at in the street, or deliberately targeted by a trickster who conned you out of money and took your valuables. Unfortunately for a large percentage of people with learning disabilities or autism, this is part of the way they experience the world.

Next week, 9th – 16th October, is National Hate Crime Awareness Week. Dimensions, the support service for people with learning disabilities and autism, is using the event to raise awareness of learning disability hate crime with their #ImWithSam campaign, now in its fifth year. We sat down with two of the key players at Dimensions – Dr Mark Brookes MBE, an expert by lived experience and the principal energy behind and spokesperson for this campaign, and Andie Gbedemah, Dimension’s head of public affairs, who has worked closely alongside Mark to help the campaign make a real impact – to discuss the progress they’ve achieved over the course of the campaign, what things still need to improve, and how people can get involved to support them.

The #ImWithSam campaign immediately stood out to us because it is spearheaded by people with lived experience of learning disability and of learning disability hate crime. Mark – recently awarded his MBE for his advocacy and campaigning work on the rights of people with learning disabilities – is the driving force behind the campaign.

Campaign beginnings – understanding the problem

One of the biggest barriers that Dimensions faced in trying to get people and agencies to take the problem of learning disability hate crime seriously was the lack of data about the problem. Without strong evidence about the extent of the problem and the lives it affects, it is difficult to get agencies and policy-makers to take serious action on the issue.

To try and address this, and gain some concrete data, Dimensions kicked off the campaign in 2016 with a survey open to people with learning disabilities, autistic people, and their supporters. It found that 73% of respondents had experienced hate crime, but only 48% of those had reported it to the police. People reported the long-term impacts of hate crime as having a severe impact on their wellbeing and affecting their behaviour, for example, avoiding certain places, avoiding public transport, avoiding travelling at night or losing confidence in doing things independently. Dimensions also followed this up with work with the Office for National Statistics using data from previous Crime Survey for England and Wales, which found that people who have a learning disability or autism are four times more likely to experience hate crime than people who have a different type of disability.

In the survey, Dimensions also wanted to understand why people weren’t reporting the hate crime they were experiencing. Reasons included worrying about being belittled or not taken seriously, not seeing it as a criminal act or believing it was low level anti-social behaviour that isn’t worth reporting. As Mark points out, many people with learning disabilities have experienced bullying since childhood and therefore may not recognise this type of crime as anything out of the ordinary as it has sadly become such an ingrained part of the experience of being a person with a learning disability.

Dimensions used the information gathered through the survey to begin working in partnership with other agencies on the issue of hate crime. They published a report which included a blueprint for change. The campaign aims to tackle the issue of hate crime from a variety of angles to ensure a joined-up approach:

  • It aims to raise awareness of hate crime as a criminal act among people who might be at risk and their supporters.
  • It signposts victims navigating the criminal justice system to those who can help them best.
  • It aims to create change among the agencies that can impact – including the police, courts and other parts of the criminal justice system.
  • It seeks to firm up definitions of hate crime to make sure that crimes that target people because of their learning disability or autism are explicitly included.

Dimensions have done a great deal of work internally on the awareness-raising aspects, including easy read guides, workshops and e-learning training on the issue of hate crime, and also offer these resources and training to other organisations that support people with learning disabilities and autism. These cover things such as what a hate crime is, what to do if you are a victim and how to report a hate crime.

Partnership working

However, perhaps where the greatest potential for change has come about is through Dimensions working in partnership with agencies to train staff and instigate changes in institutional practice and culture. In 2019, Dimensions trained over 1000 frontline police in Surrey, and they have worked with other forces such as Essex, Warwickshire, the Met, and Avon and Somerset. Through this engagement they have tried to help police be better placed to support victims of and investigate learning disability hate crime. They focused on helping police understand what the barriers might be to reporting a hate crime, how to help victims and how to best ensure that if someone does report a hate crime it is seen through to a conviction – an element that is vital to instil the confidence of people with learning disabilities that their reports will be taken seriously.

Similarly, Dimensions have worked closely with the CPS to put in place best practice measures to support people when their cases do go to court (for example, offering victims a tour of the court in advance so they know what to expect). Mark notes that hate crime cases can very often collapse in court, so the CPS need to work with victims and the police to ensure that everyone is fully prepared for the court case, and that victims are given support in the aftermath too.

Policy work

Dimensions also couple this direct work with agencies with wider influencing work targeted at the criminal justice system and policy around hate crime. For Dimensions, there continue to be problems with the definition of hate crime and how it is interpreted by police and judges. For example, scams targeting people with learning disabilities to try to con them out of money are rarely prosecuted as hate crimes, but Andie says that Dimensions would argue that it absolutely is a hate crime, that person has often been targeted specifically because of their disability. Current legal definitions and the prejudices of people within the legal profession and judiciary often means that such scams are discussed as “opportunistic” and as targeting “vulnerable” people, rather than in the language of hate crime.

After years of pushing, Dimensions have recently been working with the Law Commission, who opened up a consultation and workshops around the issue of learning disability hate crime. Their recommendations are currently being finalised and are due to be published in the next couple of months.

Five years of progress…

Andie and Mark are upbeat in that they have seen a lot of positive change come out of 5 years of the campaign. The Law Commission report that is due will assess whether the law as it currently stands is fit for purpose, and should make some useful recommendations to help solidify the case going forward. Over the 5 years, they have seen the CPS and other agencies make efforts to try and challenge barriers. For example, the CPS used focus groups of people with lived experience to make revisions to their policy statement as to how they treat disabled victims, for example, removing terminology that treats people as “vulnerable”, to try and lead attitudinal shifts within the justice system.

The campaign has also coincided with year-on-year increases of recorded disability hate crime. Andie thinks that there has been an increase in instances of hate crime, but this is also coupled with a significant increase in reporting of hate crime. When they work with police forces and do focused interventions to try and improve their processes for dealing with disability hate crime, Dimensions warn police forces that they should expect to see spikes in hate crime – this is not necessarily something to worry about but rather a sign that awareness of and confidence in the system is increasing among victims and people feel more willing to come forward and report.

…and still some challenges ahead

Andie and Mark both feel that hate crimes against people with a learning disability still get less attention and focused support than other types of hate crime – but think that Dimensions have pushed the issue much further forward than it otherwise would have been.

Another challenge they have experienced in the campaign is an understandable unwillingness amongst victims to speak publicly on the issue and about their experiences. Without individual stories of how the crimes have affected and impacted people, Andie notes, it’s hard to capture hearts and minds. They also always want to make sure that their campaigns are informed by the experiences of victims, but it’s hard to get hold of people to visibly stand up and speak out as victims. That’s part of the rationale for the campaign’s name and slogan – the idea is that “Sam” could be anyone, and that everyone needs to stand together on the issue.

Going forward, Dimensions are looking to put more energy into encouraging victims to report hate crime, but they know that it takes a huge amount for a victim to come forward, report their experiences to the police, and have confidence that the system will believe and support them. It was great to speak to two such inspiring people taking action on this issue. With the continued hard work of Dimensions, their collaborations with the people they support and the agencies who can make a difference, there is hope that #ImWithSam can improve the experiences of people with learning disabilities and autism as they seek justice for hate crime.

Find out more

There are lots of ways to get involved if you’d like to support Dimensions in this campaign:

  • There are tonnes of resources on the Dimensions website, including videos and online training.
  • Dimensions are currently in the process of updating all their workshops and Mark can talk either virtually or in person about the issue to your organisation.
  • Take a look at their Hate Crime for Frontline Police resource and training.
  • Dimensions run “train the trainers” workshops to help other organisations spread the message.
  • People can also get involved in campaigning by writing to their MP. Campaign work on crime needs to be locally focused because of the way that police forces operate, so having partners or individuals working regionally can be of great benefit.
  • Finally, Dimensions are also repeating the work of their original survey – to try and gather some up-to-date data about the issue. They’re asking everyone with a learning disability and their supporters to fill in the survey to help make sure they can make the strongest case about the extent of the issue and its effects on people’s lives.

If you’ve been a victim of hate crime yourself, there is support available. Dimensions are also always here to listen to the stories of people who’ve experienced hate crime – either anonymously or to go on record visibly to influence change. Personal stories can make the work that Dimensions do more powerful and impactful. For example, much of the training that Dimensions deliver for police forces is focused around Mark’s own story and experiences. You can get in touch with them via their website or by calling 0300 303 9001.

Photo: Dimensions

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