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Until recently, I was totally unaware of the special vulnerability of people with disabilities to extraordinary violence. Thinking of crimes inspired by hate or bias, I might have conjured up an image of a burning cross on the lawn of a black family, or swastikas scrawled on the walls of a synagogue. Having studied hate crimes for more than 30 years, I was familiar with the horrendous offense committed against James Byrd, the black man in Jasper, Texas, who in 1998 was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck driven by a white supremacist. I had also examined the horrific act of terrorism in 2002 perpetrated by a 41-year-old Egyptian-born California resident at Los Angeles International Airport’s El Al ticket counter who shot to death an Israeli emigre and an El Al employee.
At the same time, I was oblivious to the brutal assault recently committed by five staff members working in a Louisiana psychiatric facility who were arrested for battering their patients with hand weights and inserting bleach into their open wounds. I had never heard about the couple in suburban Chicago, both dependent on wheelchairs, who planned to install a ramp at the entrance of their single-family residence until neighbors threw rocks through their windows and sent threatening letters saying “Your kind won’t last here.” I was unaware of the 19-year-old man with a developmental disability who was brutally attacked on a street in Boston, Massachusetts by a group of nine young people. The bloodied victim who later described himself to police as “slow and challenged” screamed and pleaded for help as the perpetrators threw him to the ground and repeatedly kicked, beat, and choked him.
According to anonymous victim accounts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, individuals with a disability experience serious violence at a rate nearly twice that of the general population. In one year, persons with disabilities were victims of about 47,000 rapes, 79,000 robberies, 114,000 aggravated assaults and 476,000 simple assaults.
In the United States, acts of violence against people with disabilities are now recognized as hate crimes. Thirty-one state statutes include disabilities among their protected categories along with race, religion and sexual orientation. In November 2009, President Obama signed a federal hate crime bill that expanded protection to Americans based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability status. Yet very few Americans even know that disability had been included in the law.
Violence against people with disabilities differs in important ways from other hate crimes. Unlike racially motivated offenses, disability hate crimes tend to be committed less by strangers and more by family members, neighbors, and friends who may also be caregivers. Victims are especially reluctant to report attacks out of fear that their tormentors will retaliate. Or, they may have a psychiatric or intellectual deficit which interferes with their capacity to report a crime.
Over the years, police departments have increased their sensitivity to hate crimes based on race, religion, or sexual orientation, but they still may not recognize bias against people with disabilities in the motivation for an assault. Victims anonymously report tens of thousands of violent acts against them because of their disabilities. Yet police reports of such offenses to the FBI number fewer than 100 annually—an incredibly vast under-estimate.
The lesson is clear: we must do what it takes to change the thinking of ordinary people who consider only race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation as grounds for bigotry. It is important to remember that many people with disabilities are harmed much more by the way they are treated than by their intellectual, psychiatric, or physical disadvantage. When we take seriously those attacks based on disability, we send a message both to the perpetrators and to the victims that we will no longer tolerate the cruel and inhumane treatment of an entire group of people.
Professor Jack Levin, Ph.D. is co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston and the author or co-author of 30 books including The Violence of Hate: Confronting Racism, Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Bigotry. Along with veteran producer William Lancaster, Levin is in the process of gaining support for a documentary film in which hate crimes against people with disabilities will be featured. Learn more on the Stop Invisible Hate website.
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