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The cyber-victimisation of disabled people in Scotland during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic redefined our norms and raised concerns over the escalation of discrimination against disabled people. This included the cyber-victimisation of disabled people, a prevalent phenomenon that impacts physical health, mental well-being, social relationships and living conditions.

Dr Zhraa Alhaboby, from the OU’s School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences, was awarded funding from the Research, Enterprise and Scholarship Unit as PI for a project to examine the influence of the pandemic on the cyber-victimisation of disabled people in Scotland and identify ways to tackle this disturbing phenomenon. The project team included collaborations with Glasgow Disability Alliance and Inclusion Scotland, both of whom provided support to disabled people during the pandemic.

The project team engaged with disabled people with a range of disabilities and chronic conditions who shared their experiences of online communication during the pandemic, how online harassment impacted their self-management of health, and reflections on the support available. The results were further contextualised with Police Scotland to identify ways to improve formal support available to disabled victims.

The mixed-method research approach used by Dr Alhaboby included quantitative and qualitative data collected via an online survey disseminated by the project partners, and social media campaigns. Disabled people who reported experiencing cyber-victimisation were invited for in-depth interviews.

A total of 123 disabled persons aged between 18-80 years participated in the study, 45% of which were targeted online during the pandemic. Of those targeted, 71% perceived the harrasment to be motivated by prejudice. The main platform in which the harassment took place was Twitter, followed by Facebook and Instagram. Responses included:

I was very shaken, physically, and emotionally the reaction followed the physical feeling sick. Then I noticed more and more replies along the same lines. I couldn't believe people could be so hateful, at first, I genuinely thought they didn't understand, but then realised how abusive they were.

I have looked into using the Equality Act or Human Rights Act, but I really feel legal action is not accessible to the average disabled person.

The study revealed that the participants of the study who were targeted online experienced an impact on health across different domains, such as the exacerbation of illness, changes in self-management, and changes in medications or counselling sessions. These were complicated by the loss of access to healthcare during the pandemic. The qualitative findings demonstrated the consequences on physical and mental health, in addition to the role of COVID-19 in exacerbating such impacts. Loss of trust in society and reluctance to seek formal support were prominent themes.

Dr Alhaboby said that the project gave important insights into how the pandemic had added to the existing hostility against disabled people in cyberspace and resulted in complex impacts on wellbeing. The study also showed that online targetting of disabled people is changing over time, in terms of the nature of communication, platforms and expanding impact.

The findings of this project will now guide future work to tackle cyber-victimisation through investigating the phenomenon in the wider context and developing interventions at both the public and practice levels.

Partners for the project are Glasgow Disability Alliance (GDA), Inclusion Scotland and Police Scotland, who commented:

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded greater online participation and digital supports. As a result, disabled people are increasingly reporting incidents of cyber victimisation, The abuse takes place online, but the impact is real life.

GDA member

The project has helped GDA to identify and highlight cyber abuse and support disabled people affected so that they can continue to be connected and feel safe.


The research project 'Cyber-victimisation of disabled people in Scotland during the pandemic' has shone light on this under-researched area and provides valuable evidence of disabled people's experiences. Inclusion Scotland will draw on these findings in our work to ensure the necessary law, policy and practice changes are made to eradicate all forms of discrimination, harassment and abuse of disabled people.

Inclusion Scotland

The cyber-victimisation project is important for our service because it contributes to a number of ongoing strategies such as online harassment and violence against women and girls.

Police Scotland