Ableism and Violence

The epidemic of violence facing people with disabilities

Earlier today, gunmen murdered at least 14 people at a center for people with developmental disabilities. For me and many other people with disabilities, this act is a reminder of the constant threat of violence facing us. In the United States, a person with a disability is nearly three times more likely to be the victim of non-fatal violent crime than an able-bodied person[1]. For children, the World Health Organization reports they are four times more likely to be targeted[2]. Whether the target is an adult or child, the most common perpetrator of these crimes is a loved one, a caretaker, or a family member. Additionally, these statistics accumulate with other aspects of societal prejudice. For example, women and girls with disabilities are more likely to be sexually assaulted, and disabled people of color are even more likely to be targeted by police. However, people with disabilities aren’t just targeted by their families and friends. They are also the victims of state sanctioned violence.

Courtesy of KMOV

When Kajieme Powell was murdered by police in St. Louis, Missouri, he likely had an untreated, undiagnosed mental disability. In March 2014, having a disability cost James Boyd his life. For Robert Saylor, a man with Down Syndrome, going to a movie theater ended in being suffocated by police. Police have mistaken cerebral palsy for drunkenness, a seizure for resisting arrest, deafness for a failure to comply. When fifteen percent of all 911 calls involve a person with a physical or mental disability, the victims add up quickly [3]. In fact, in over half of police brutality cases, the victims are people with disabilities [4]. The unspoken foundation of this targeted police violence is a history of state sanctioned abuse of people with disabilities.

The Judge Rotenberg Center
At the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, Massachusetts, employees administer painful electric shocks to people with autism who display harmless, yet deemed socially unacceptable, autistic behavior. These horrific punishments are further used for any annoyances at all — whether someone urgency asks to use the bathroom, clears their throat, laughs, or uses an inappropriate tone (the staff deems what counts as proper tone, of course). Originally in Rhode Island, the JRC was founded as the Behavioral Research Institute (BRI) in 1971, and it began as a school for children with mental illnesses or psychiatric disabilities. Another location was opened in California in 1976. Staunchly anti-medication, the staff at both BRI branches instead employed a variety of ‘treatments’, called aversives, including beatings, forced ingestion of hot peppers, and the use of a white-noise helmet, which emitted static. After being threatened by the Department of Health, parents and caregivers took over the California branch, but the abuse continued. After a student died and another was severely abused, the California branch of the BRI was banned from using corporal punishment.

Image courtesy of Benjamin Paulin

The Rhode Island branch of the BRI, renamed as the JRC, was found to be negligent in multiple deaths of students in the late 80s and early 90s. They relocated to Canton, Massachusetts, but redoubled their commitment to physical aversives; this time, they chose a device called the Graduated Electric Decelerator (GED), which administers a powerful electric shock. The GED is legal, despite numerous complaints that the device burns students or can cause permanent damage. Combined with physical restraint and food deprivation, the GED remains a prominent tool of the JRC today.

This is torture. Of course here they might say, but this is for a good purpose because it is for medical treatment. But even for a good purpose […] you cannot balance this. The prohibition of torture is absolute. — United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, on the JRC adversives. [5]

Currently, the United Nations considers forced sterilization to be torture, though a U.S. Federal law deemed it legal until 1979. However, it is still legal for the guardians of people with mental disabilities to have them sterilized against their will. For people with disabilities, this sounds horrifyingly similar to Buck v. Bell (1927) in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the forced sterilization of a man who allegedly had a mental disability. In fact, state Supreme Courts have struck down attempts to categorically ban sterilization, opting instead to make it conditionally legal. Although purportedly in the best interest of the disabled person (though often despite their protests), forced sterilization is founded in the idea that caregivers are the best advocates for disabled people. It certainly wasn’t the case in the California BRI, and it isn’t the case in charitable organizations like Autism Speaks, which are run solely by neurotypical people and funnel money into treatment centers like the JRC.

Furthermore, anyone who has delved into debates over abortion rights has heard the rhetoric of eugenics. Instead of centering the conversation around the rights of the pregnant person, the thought of having a disabled child is used to horrify people into supporting abortion. Although I am staunchly pro-choice, I balk at the idea that abortion is good because it gets rid of disabled children. Like with conditional sterilization, history has heard these arguments before.

In order to fulfil this duty in a practical manner, the State will have to avail itself of modern medical discoveries. It must proclaim as unfit for procreation all those who are inflicted with some visible hereditary disease or are the carriers of it; and practical measures must be adopted to have such people rendered sterile. — On the Elimination of Defectives, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler [6].

The most common reaction of able-bodied people to horrific ableism is to assure me that it is uncommon. Somehow, they ignore the fact that 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. 80% of intellectually disabled women have been sexually assaulted, and of those, 50% have been assaulted more than ten times [7]. Most importantly, the violence against people with disabilities is statistically perpetrated by able-bodied — most often, by caretakers and family.

This is why the absence of disabled voices from the news coverage of San Bernardino unsettles me. This is why the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s motto is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” This is why the shooting of yet another disabled person of color has me in tears. This is why I nearly threw up when a close family member joked that, if his fiance was found to have my disability, he’d push her off of the balcony. Every instance of harassment and violence against people with disabilities is rooted in an abhorrent historical pattern — a pattern that we have yet to escape because ableism is only rare if you’re able-bodied.