A legal buffer against hate towards the disabled

Julia Farrugia Portelli | It will never be acceptable for a person with a disability to be subjected to intimidation, assault or ridicule because of their disability

The truth is that, in an ideal world, no one, no minister, no government or opposition should feel the need to erect a legal buffer against hate. But reality says otherwise, particularly in the digital age when social media has become a painful source of utter hatred in all its forms, shades and tones.

It was with all this in mind that I forwarded for discussion in parliament on the second reading of a legal amendment to the Criminal Law. The time had come for resolute action to stop hate crime against persons with a disability and the elderly, either individually or as a group.

Incredibly, the current criminal law does not consider such abhorrent acts as being criminal, hence the need for this amendment and a robust message of zero tolerance sent to the kind and caring society we all aspire – or pretend? – to belong to.

It is indeed distressing to note that from research carried out in Europe, over the last five years 50% of persons with disabilities had reported to authorities being harassed, with 37% of persons in other categories also reporting harassment.

I did not mince my words in the House, nor will I in the press: the revised law provides us with a special moment in time which will eventually distinguish the men and women from the hypocrites. It never was and will never be acceptable for a person with a disability to be subjected to intimidation, assault or ridicule because of their disability. There is no place for compromise or exception. Persons with a disability, their families, their voluntary organisations and all our State agencies expect nothing less from us.

That we were among many other European nations that had not included this buffer in criminal laws was no justification. We have now acted to fill the pitiful void that existed and which, inconceivably, still exists in the European law. The police are now free to take action over such abuses against persons with a disability and the elderly, bringing to an end the frustration at having been rendered helpless on so many previous occasions.

The two changes to the law leave no room for misinterpretation. Article 82A makes it a crime for someone to verbally, or in writing, as well as by behaviour, insult, abuse or threaten another person out of sheer hate. Article 82C further marks as crime a person’s attempted impression of indifference or denial, or, even worse, approval of hate action and language, whether against a single person or a group of persons with the same characteristic.

While the law before these amendments offered protection to various groups within society, among them people of different religious belief and ethnicity, in 2014 we made it a point to include persons with a different sexual orientation and identity. Sadly, persons with a disability had been overlooked. Hence this government’s evident will-power to introduce these and more reforms that give persons with a disability and their families the dignity and peace of mind that they thoroughly deserve.

However much it hurts me personally, I purposely opted to mention particular cases of hate crime among us by way of highlighting the need for these amendments to our criminal law. Like the case of Raisa who, only a few months back, was called “a handicap” and harmed as we stood helplessly unable to take any action against her aggressors. What did they tell her? That she is ugly and that she cannot even move: a person in a wheelchair after nine months in coma. Shameful.

And the case prior to the last general election when the face of former prime minister Joseph Muscat was callously photoshopped and changed into that of a person with the Down Syndrome condition. The sad insult was obviously to our whole community of persons with a disability.

More horrific examples? The sad case this year of my honourable colleague, Kevin Cutajar, who was also a victim of hate crime because of his disability and, again, we could not proceed with any action because of the law. And the case of far-rightist Norman Lowell who, at the peak of an electoral campaign, had sought to demonise persons with a disability and their families by heartlessly referring to eugenics as a need in society. He said that a disabled baby can be killed even after its birth, while referring to persons with disability as people who have a defect and that should be sterilised.

The State is no longer helpless, thank goodness. It has acted on the advice of all stakeholders and as a result of public consultations. Justice can finally intervene.