David Wilkin’s specialism is disability hate crime (DHC). His activities include public speaking, lecturing, publishing and consultation work with the UK police and other authorities. David has been both a victim of DHC and is a passionate campaigner to bring these crimes to light. David conducts research on the topic and is in continuing contact with victims of DHC and their associates. In 2020, David was awarded an Honorary Fellowship at the School of Criminology at the University of Leicester. He is also the Lead Coordinator of the UK-based Disability Hate Crime Network.
On June 4th 2020 the UK Secretary of State for Transport announced, as part of the measures to control the Covid-19 pandemic, the mandatory wearing of face coverings on public transport within England and this would commence 11 days later. He did this by way of a Statutory Instrument under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. Face coverings are not surgical masks but are improvised methods of helping to stymy the spread of the virus in confined spaces by reducing droplets escaping from the mouth and nose. Latterly they became mandatory on public transport in Scotland and in Wales. Staff and police officers are not required to wear coverings but the police can issue a £100 fine for any non-wearing of coverings which is reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days. However, although the wearing of these garments appears to be mandatory, there are a number of exemptions from wearing them for disabled people or for those who might become distressed by wearing face coverings. These exemptions were published by the UK government on 14th June 2020 and were subsequently updated three times. The announcement that these coverings would be mandatory was made on prime-time UK national television, but the exemptions from wearing them did not attract similar exposure. Moreover, this supposedly mandatory requirement has been re-broadcast by both UK bus and railway operators but without the same widespread endorsement of the exemptions. This has resulted in peer-policing of the wearing of coverings – often to the detriment of disabled people who had a legitimate reason for not wearing them. Disabled people have become victims of hostility and abuse for not wearing coverings by other members of the public who may, or may not, be aware of the existence of exemptions.
It additionally became mandatory to wear face coverings in shops in Scotland from 10th July 2020 and in England from 24th July 2020. In preparation for enforcing these regulations Dame Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the UKs most senior police officer, said that people not wearing ‘masks’ should be “shamed into complying or shamed to leave the store by the store keepers or by other members of the public” (BBC, 2020). This comment from a national leader seems to justify the peer-policing of people who might actually have a legitimate reason for not wearing a face covering.
Soon after the introduction of mandatory face coverings on public transport, disabled people started to contact the author. At the time of writing 46 notifications had been expressed. One female, who could not wear anything covering her face because of breathing difficulties, was ridiculed by another passenger. The perpetrator addressed fellow train passengers whilst pointing to the victim and blaming her for ‘deliberately infecting other people’ and ‘trying to bring other’s down to her level’. In a similar attack where the victim was portrayed similar to ‘the star of a freak show’, a female perpetrator shouted above the head of the wheelchair-using victim saying that ‘everyone should stand well clear – this one isn’t wearing a mask’. The offender also stated, whilst specifying the victim, that ‘these people are a threat to us all’.
In another incident on a train, a male approached a victim who became distressed when their face was covered and removed the mask. The perpetrator dangled a surgical mask in front of the victim and loudly said ‘put this on’. He was laughing and engaging fellow passengers when he went on to say ‘you lot [disabled people] should be able to afford one of these with all your benefits’. The offender, more threateningly, then said ‘put it on, we don’t want your pox’. The victim then applied the mask to placate the offender but left the train at the next station, unable to complete his journey. During an incident on a bus, the male bus driver told a female using two walking sticks that she could not board without wearing a mask. The victim, with humour, stated that ‘it kept falling off’ and that she ‘had no hands available to hold it on’. The driver, aware of her obvious predicament, then said ‘no mask – no ride’. To seemingly justify his comments he went on to say ‘it’s my job to protect the public on this bus and I’m going to do it’. The victim then applied the face covering but, as predicted, it kept falling off. This brought laughter from some of the other passengers – but the victim ignored this as she needed to attend a medical appointment. The driver also found the situation amusing and laughed loudly.
Aside from direct attacks for not wearing face coverings, disabled people have communicated other Covid-19-related incidents to the author. Socially distanced queuing has now become the norm. Partially sighted people have reported that they have been abused for not socially distancing, a facet which guide dogs have not been trained to accomplish. Moreover, people with some sight impairments are unable to perceive depth and distance. Disabled correspondents have also expressed that they have been pushed out of queues, or that the queue has circumnavigated itself around them so that they are no longer in it. Other disabled people, using wheelchairs or other bulky equipment, have been unable to use their customary route around a railway station because of chairs and tables being placed outside of cafés and bars to necessitate social distancing inside the premises. This, again, has had an especially profound effect on people with limited vision.
The world is in a crisis. State authorities and ordinary people alike are coping with situations which were, until recently, alien to them. Governments need to issue, and occasionally enforce, regulations which were speedily constructed under emergency conditions. Guidance and regulation is arguably necessary to establish public safety and to control the pandemic. However, one thing that is glaringly obvious from these incidents is that governments and national agencies need to broadcast clear and balanced instructions. The use of the word mandatory has led public transport operators and their customers to believe that there is no conceivable choice but to wear face coverings. Furthermore, although exemptions to wearing face coverings have been cited by the UK government, these have not been transmitted with the same urgency or bandwidth as has the need to wear face coverings. Much could be gained, and much victimisation reduced, by the use of measured language and its considered delivery.
BBC(British Broadcasting Corporation) (2020), Coronavirus: London police to enforce face masks ‘as last resort’, online at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-53498100, (Accessed: 24/07/2020).
David Wilkin, Honorary Fellow at the School of Criminology, University of Leicester
Lead Coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network
Images: courtesy of the author