Canada needs to be more proactive in preventing hate crimes against children with disabilities.
Over the past year, there have been at least two media-reported incidents of violent attacks on young people with disabilities. One, which took place in Winnipeg in January, involved a 13-year-old boy with intellectual disabilities being thrown into a dumpster and left there by two men as a “prank”. Another took place earlier this week in Windsor when a teenage girl with autism was bullied verbally and physically by classmates. These savage incidents are extremely disturbing, both because of the level of disrespect shown to fellow members of society and because of the lack of a systematic official response on the part of government.
Law and policy addressing disability hate crimes in Canada are weak at best. In 2014, the provision dealing with hate speech was removed from the Canadian Human Rights Act. A similar lacuna is found under the Criminal Code which allows for a judge, in sentencing, to take into account whether a crime was motivated by prejudice based on physical and mental disability among other potential biases but was not designed to extensively address the complex issue of disability hate crimes.
In other jurisdictions, this socio-legal problem is being taken up directly. In the UK, for example, debate took place this month in the House of Commons exploring potential avenues for improving disability hate crime reporting and prosecution. As reported in the Hansard, research in the UK by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that 22% of youth with a disability (ie between the ages of 10-15) had been the victim of crime in the past year as compared to only 12% of nondisabled youth of the same age group. They also found that 35% of those surveyed who had social or behavioral impairments such as autism had been victims of crime. Finally, they found a widespread avoidance of reporting hate crimes out of fear and lack of confidence in the justice system.
Canada needs a disability hate crime strategy. The federal and provincial governments, in consultation with persons with disabilities, need to seriously explore the causes of disability hate crimes and the strategies that may work to prevent them. We also need to support the victims so that they have viable and accessible means of reporting incidents and the confidence to know that they will be taken seriously.
Only once we cease permitting violence to occur to children with disabilities can we consider ourselves starting on a path towards a fully inclusive society.
By Laverne Jacobs, Associate Professor, University of Windsor, Faculty of Law
Posted: November 13, 2016