It probably surprised some that people with disabilities were among those taking part in last night’s National Hate Crime Awareness Week vigil at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
But in Suffolk between August 2014 and July 2015, hate crimes against those with disabilities were the second highest group, at 107, after racial incidents at 401.
That was why among those at the cathedral was a party of customers from the Info Bar, in Whiting Street, Bury St Edmunds, which is run by Leading Lives, a social enterprise supporting 1,200 Suffolk people with learning disabilities.
Hate crime is defined as any offence perceived by the victim, or others, as motivated by prejudice or hatred.
Many Info Bar customers have had problems ranging from name calling to physical attacks and theft, so much so that some take it as ‘normal’.
But part of the service Info Bar gives, with partner Phoenix Rising, is to raise their awareness of what is unacceptable and of their own vulnerabilities.
Who is guilty? Info Bar manager Kate Evans says the only age group that does not pick on her customers is young children.
“They see them as just another person,” she said.
“We get name calling and bullying, elderly people being rude, middle aged people making derogatory remarks in shops. It makes our customers insular and reluctant to try new things.
“We had a problem at the bus station – mostly teenagers – and we had a lot of customers stop using the buses because of it.”
Kate said the working of police community teams helped. By making them aware of incidents too minor to report in isolation, it meant the police could watch problem areas, like the bus station.
Customer Dan, 27, said: “ It makes me feel a bit angry. I’m like any other person – I just want to get home. I’ve had silly people say silly things in public – calling me silly names. It’s really horrible.”
He was also pushed to the ground and struck by someone in the street outside the Info Bar, who also made threats to break his legs.
Dan said: “I wanted to hang out with them and the guy took it the wrong way.”
Michelle, 33, was also attacked and robbed by two men while in her mobility scooter at a cash machine in daylight.
“They hit my head against the ATM and took my money,” she said. “I got over it. You can’t let them win – coming here is like a safety net.”
But she also speaks of petty abuse: “I’ve had flour and eggs thrown at me. I’ve had elderly people come up and say I shouldn’t be using my scooter because that’s for the elderly.
“They don’t know me. Some disabilities are hidden. If you broke your leg and were in a wheelchair, they’d see the plaster.”
The Suffolk Hate Crime Partnership is striving to raise awareness among the public and victims. As part of that the Info Bar customers met Suffolk’s High Sheriff Judith Shallow before the vigil.
She said: “They’ve experienced it first hand. I’m sure it would surprise a lot of people that they suffer hate crime.”