Only 17 hate crimes against disabled people were reported in Cumbria last year because victims did not realise an offence had been committed, police said. In 2012, 166 victims came forward to say they had been physically or verbally abused because of their race.
Cumbria Police is so concerned by the low number of complaints, it is launching an awareness campaign.
It said many people did not realise being spat at or slapped was a crime.
Over the next eight weeks, police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) officers will be visiting disability groups to spread the message that abuse is a crime and should be reported.
A police spokesman said: “Targeting someone based on their real or perceived vulnerability is inexcusable – but we can only take action when we know a crime has taken place.
“We have had a number of conferences and meetings with disabled people over the past 18 months and they told us that it wasn’t unusual for them to be shouted at, slapped or spat at as they went about their daily business.
“The majority also said that they didn’t report this to police because they hadn’t realised this behaviour could be considered criminal.”