Disabled Vulnerable to Violence

Jack Levin
April 28, 2010


The Boston Herald
May 19, 2010 Wednesday

Disabled vulnerable to violence
LENGTH: 614 words

Last week, a 19-year-old Mattapan man with a developmental disability was brutally attacked on a Dor-chester street 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.

This attack on a person with an intellectual deficit was anything but unique, yet few Americans are aware of the special vulnerability of people with disabilities to extraordinary violence.

Five staff members at a Louisiana psychiatric facility were arrested recently for battering their patients with hand weights and inserting bleach into their open wounds.

Jennifer Daugherty, a 30-year-old mentally disabled woman from rural Pennsylvania, was tortured and killed in February by six offenders pretending to be her good friends. The perpetrators shaved Daugherty’s head, bound her with Christmas decorations, beat her with a towel rack and vacuum cleaner, fed her deter-gent, urine, and various medications, and then stabbed her to death.

According to anonymous victim accounts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, individuals with a disability (especially those with a developmental disability) experience serious violence at a rate nearly twice that of the general population. In 2008 alone, persons with disabilities were victims of about 47,000 rapes, 79,000 robberies, 114,000 aggravated assaults, and 476,000 simple assaults.

State and federal law now recognize acts of violence against people with disabilities as a hate crime. Statutes in 31 states include disabilities among their protected categories along with race, religion, and sex-ual orientation. In November 2009, President Barack Obama signed a federal hate crime bill that expanded protection to Americans based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability status. In Mas-sachusetts, assault and battery on a disabled person carries a more severe maximum penalty than the same offense on an able-bodied victim.

Yet violence against people with disabilities differs in important ways from other hate crimes. Unlike ra-cially motivated offenses, disablist hate crimes tend to be committed less by strangers and more by family members, neighbors, and friends who may also be caregivers. Victims are 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 around the country have increased their sensitivity to hate crimes based on race, religion, or sexual orientation, but they still may not recognize disablist bias in the motivation for an assault. In 2007-2008, only 157 of the more than 15,000 hate crimes reported by the police to the FBI targeted people with physical, emotional, or intellectual disabilities. Obviously, this represents a tremendous under-estimate of the problem.

A couple in suburban Chicago, both dependent on wheelchairs, 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.” The couple gave up and moved away. They might have stayed in their home if they had received some support and encouragement from their neighbors and the police.

We don’t have to change the law, but we must change the thinking of ordinary people who consider only race, religion, or sexual orientation as grounds for bigotry.

Jack Levin is a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University and co-author of “The Violence of Hate.”

LOAD-DATE: May 19, 2010
Copyright 2010 Boston Herald Inc.

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