There’s no doubt about it. Social media has changed a lot about the way we interact with each other, as well as go about our daily life. Whilst it is often used in many positive ways, sadly social media seems to be fuelling the abuse of many groups in society, including disabled people, from people who hide behind screens, often out of the reach of police, with social media giants being slow to act to tackle this behaviour.
Being online can often be a lifeline for many disabled people, who may struggle to get out and have face to face interaction with others. Moreover, getting online can be a key way for disabled people, over half of who report to feeling lonely at times, to establish and maintain social connections. As an organisation, we believe it’s important for those people who want to get online to be given the tools and support to do this in a safe way. However, for all too many disabled people, staying safe online is a difficult task.
Last year, the Petitions Committee decided to launch an inquiry into the abuse that disabled people receive online, after it received a petition signed by over 220,000 people in the UK. The committee heard from several groups of disabled people and organisations representing disabled people, which showed the scale of the issue. Given the support that we provide to people with complex needs to stay safe online, we provided a written submission to this inquiry.
In our submission, we called for disability hate crime to be defined in law. Currently, although sometimes recorded by the police, crimes against a person because of their disability are not currently punishable under hate crime law. We also called on social media companies to consult with disabled people when designing their community standards, terms and conditions, and guidelines. This means that they are more likely to reflect and represent the needs of disabled people. Crucially too, we called for these policies to be fully accessible, and available in a wide range of formats from British Sign Language, to Braille, and to be screen reader accessible. This will help empower disabled people take action when they do face abuse online.
In a further development, this petition will now be debated in Parliament on Tuesday 1st April. This means further exposure for the issue, greater ability for Parliament to hold social media companies to account, as well as more chance of tangible change in terms of police powers through the law to stop online abuse of disabled people. More importantly though, this indicates that Parliament is finally taking the rights of disabled people seriously, showing that they have the same rights to respect as non-disabled people.
It’s great news that this issue is finally being taken seriously. This inquiry has meant that social media companies have been more thoroughly held to account as to how their community guidelines and standards are failing disabled people. In the period since the likes of Google, Facebook, and Twitter gave evidence, many have already updated some of their community guidelines, including publishing Easy Read versions.
However, this issue won’t stop once it’s been debated. We need to keep pushing social media companies more to protect the ever increasing number of disabled people who are able to get online. We need to keep pushing the government to ensure that they give police the powers to adequately deal with people who abuse disabled people online. We also need to do as much as we can, as social media users, to call out and report any form of abuse towards disabled people, as well as other groups. This is a collective challenge, but having the tools to tackle this problem starts firmly with the government and social media companies.