Dealing with appearance-related abuse and harassment

If you have a visible difference, you may experience abuse, harassment and even hate crimes. We explain when and how to report this to the police.

No-one should ever experience abuse, in person or online, because of how they look. However, people with a visible difference often encounter appearance-related abuse and harassment.

In many cases, that abuse may constitute a hate incident or even a hate crime.

On this page, we explain what these terms mean and how you can report hate crimes and hate incidents.

Abuse, harassment, hate incident or hate crime?

All these different terms can be confusing, but if you experience a verbal, online or physical attack because of your visible difference, it will often fall into one of these categories.

Abuse is a broad category, meaning the mistreatment of someone. There are many forms of abuse, including verbal, physical and psychological. If someone shouts offensive things at you because of your visible difference, they are verbally abusing you.

Harassment is unwanted behaviour which you find offensive, intimidating or humiliating. It includes spoken or written words, images, physical gestures, facial expressions and jokes. If someone knowingly tells a cruel joke about visible difference in front of you, they are harassing you.

Harassment because of your visible difference could be against the law. This is because the Equality Act 2010 considers harassment due to “disability” as unlawful discrimination. You may not identify with the term “disability”, but this is how you are protected under the law.

Hate incidents and hate crimes apply to acts which the victim or anyone else believes were motivated by prejudice based on:

  • Disability
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Transgender identity

If someone has harmed or abused you because you have a visible difference, then this may be legally classed as a disability hate crime or hate incident. Again, you may not consider yourself to be disabled but this is how your visible difference is protected under the law. It’s worth remembering that disability is currently defined very broadly in hate crime law as “any physical or mental impairment” – differing from the definition used in the Equality Act.

A hate incident becomes a hate crime when a criminal act was carried out. A criminal act could include assault, criminal damage, harassment or hate mail. If no criminal act was carried out – such as name-calling – the act is still a hate incident. If you report a hate incident, the police have to record it even though it is not a crime.

You can see from these definitions that any appearance-related abuse or harassment is a hate incident and if a criminal act was carried out, it may be a hate crime. Depending upon the circumstances the incident might be also be seen as unlawful discrimination.

“I had an interview at a company that fitted satellite dishes and TV aerials, where the man said, ‘I can’t employ you. I couldn’t send you out to a customer with a face like that’. I found that really upsetting.

If I’m on my own and I get called names and experience abuse I just bury it but after 45 years of doing that I just fell apart. There is an old saying, ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you’, but names can really harm your mental health.

I’ve never reported the abuse as I didn’t know it was a crime. I didn’t know it was something the police would take seriously. People need to be aware of what they can or can’t do and we need to put a stop to the abuse.”

Phil

Examples of hate crimes

A hate crime doesn’t have to involve physical violence. A hate crime could be:

  • Harassment
  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse (shoving, punching, kicking)
  • Threatening behaviour (taunting, spitting)
  • Offensive or threatening texts or social media posts (trolling)
  • Phone calls
  • Letters
  • Intimidation
  • Damage to property
  • Exploitation by a friend, carer or someone you know for a criminal purpose
A man with a visible difference in a suit with his arms folded

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Reporting hate incidents and hate crimes

Take a look at this video from some of our Changing Faces ambassadors, who talk about their own experiences and explain why reporting hate incidents and hate crimes is so important:

It’s important to report abusive behaviour as a hate crime or a hate crime incident. Reporting a hate crime or incident isn’t wasting police time or causing a fuss. The police want to understand what is happening. The more we talk about appearance-related abuse and harassment, the better the authorities can respond.

If you tell the police that you believe an incident to be a hate crime, they have to log it and investigate it as such. A single incident may not be considered a hate crime, but if it becomes a pattern of events and you are repeatedly targeted then it could be.

How to report a hate crime

In an emergency

If you or someone else is in immediate danger, you should call the police on 999.

If you or the person involved is badly hurt, you should call an ambulance using 999.

Non-emergencies

If the crime does not pose an immediate threat, you should still report it to the police, as it must then be recorded. You can do this by calling the non-emergency number 101.

If you do not want to speak to the police or you wish to remain anonymous, you can call Crimestoppers on 0800 555111 or visit their website. You can also fill in an online reporting form through the True Vision website and this will be forwarded to your local police. Your report can be anonymous if you want it to be.

Things to remember when reporting a hate incident or hate crime

Remember the following things when reporting appearance-related abuse or harassment:

  • Trust your instincts. If you think it’s a crime, make that clear to whoever you’re reporting to.
  • Do not take the matter into your own hands. You might be fed up with having to put up with abuse but the authorities are there to handle it.
  • Take someone with you. If you are reporting the incident to the authorities, take someone with you for support, but also as a witness to support you and your story.
  • Police home visits. If at any point the police need to come to your home, you can request that they visit in plain clothes instead of in uniform. You can explain that you do not want to attract unwanted attention.
  • Give details when describing the offender. Provide as much detail of the offender as you can: age, height, build, gender, ethnicity, clothing, hair colour, glasses, jewellery or piercings, tattoos, facial hair, voice and teeth.

Where to go for support

If you or someone you know has experienced appearance-related abuse or harassment, a hate incident or a hate crime, there are lots of local services available to support you. These services vary across the UK.

There are some great national charities that can offer support as well. Both Citizens’ Advice and Victim Support provide advice and can also signpost you to local services.

Changing Faces can also help if you would like emotional support. We can explore the different ways to help you cope with your visible difference and the impact it has on your life.

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