Bashing The Disabled: The New Hate Crime

ÒMove, blind lady," a man hissed at me as he twisted my arm and grabbed my cane. He threw my cane down the escalator, which was taking me to the subway in Washington, D.C. He spat on me and growled, "You people belong in concentration camps."I knew that some people dislike those of us with disabilities, but before this encounter at the subway, I had no idea that this hostility could take the form of such rabid hatred. I had heard about neo-Nazi skinheads from news reports, usually from some place in Europe. But as I wiped the spit from my arm and groped for my cane, I saw what I hadn't seen before: hate crimes can happen here -- in a respectable, middle-class neighborhood in the United States.If my story were unique, it could be shrugged off as an isolated incident of disability-bashing. But disability advocates across the country say this isn't the case."Today in America, there's a frightening backlash against not only disabled people, but minorities, women, gays, and all those whose civil rights need protection," asserts Justin Dart Jr., a former chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.A recent column by Paul Hollander that appeared in The Wall Street Journal entitled, "We Are All (Sniffle, Sniffle) Victims Now," conveys the spirit of this backlash. Hollander writes, "If we add them all up-women, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, the disabled, homosexuals, AIDS victims, the homeless, the children of abusive parents, the overweight, etc.-it would emerge that not more than 15 percent of the population of the U.S. is free of the injuries of victimhood."What's fueling the backlash against the disabled? Resentment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed by President George Bush in 1990, say disability-community leaders."We shouldn't be surprised by the backlash," says Marca Bristo, chair of the National Council on Disability. "It happens in our society whenever a constituency fights for its civil rights. The ADA gave us our rights; we can't be turned away from jobs or public accommodations because of our disability. So now we're feeling the effects of this not-unexpected backlash."One manifestation of this backlash is hate crimes against the disabled, says Dart, who has polio. "We've become a scapegoat," he says. "Some people who don't wish to hear about our country's economic or social problems-who want to ignore civil-rights issues-blame disabled people for these problems. Sometimes that gets acted out in hateful rhetoric or hate crimes." Dart adds that disability activists even "made the list of groups that the Unabomber says he disapproves of."Hostility against the disabled is increasingly common even in public, says Jean Parker, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition.Parker, who is blind, knows this firsthand. One day, she was standing with her guide dog at a bus stop in Denver. As they were waiting for the bus, she says, "Someone silently approached and deliberately kicked my guide dog in the kidneys. I have no vision; because the person who hurt my dog didn't speak, I couldn't tell if the attacker was a man or woman."This was a hate crime. The perpetrator didn't assault or rob me. It was clear that my dog was a guide dog used to assist someone who is blind. This crime was motivated by hatred of blindness and of disability. A man was present who saw my dog being kicked. I tried to get him to give the police a description of the perpetrator, but he declined; he was afraid of retribution."This fear is one of the reasons why hate crimes are underreported, says Veronica Robertson, who represents the disability community on the Illinois Hate Crimes Task Force. "People are afraid to tell anybody that they've been the victim of a hate crime because they're scared that the perpetrator will go after them again."Robertson, a staff member of the Chicago-based advocacy group Access on Living, tells how a hate crime has devastated the life of one disabled person. "He's a quadriplegic in his mid-thirties who lives in subsidized housing on the north side of Chicago. Every time he goes outside, the same guy beats him up. While he's beating him, he says, 'I don't want you out here, you cripple. I don't like your kind. You people bring down the community.' This man is terrified of leaving his apartment building because he knows he'll be beaten and verbally abused. And he's too frightened to report the hate crime because the perpetrator has told him, 'If you tell anyone about this, I'll beat your ass.' "Hate crimes against disabled people aren't being committed only in low- income, urban areas, Robertson says. "There's hate crime in the suburbs, too."She describes one couple's futile effort to live in a Chicago suburb: "They were a husband and wife who both used wheelchairs. They had bought a house and needed to put in a ramp to make it wheelchair-accessible. People in the township came to them and said they didn't want a ramp to be installed because it would interfere with the landscaping. The couple, who weren't violating any zoning rules, said they were going to put the ramp in. Some people in the neighborhood got so angry about this that they threw rocks in the couple's home. They vandalized their house and sent threatening letters to the wife that said, 'Your kind won't last here.' Eventually, the couple gave up trying to live with the harassment and moved away."The Hate Crimes Statistics Act was recently amended to include bias based on disability, through the legislative efforts of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, himself a disabled veteran. The FBI will now collect data about disability-based hate crimes, as well as those based on race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation."We'll be helping disability groups understand and identify hate crimes, and we'll be working to make police departments and law-enforcement agencies more knowledgeable about disability and sensitive to disabled people," says James Nolan, the coordinator of hate-crimes training programs for the FBI.Barbara Faye Waxman, a disability activist who has done extensive research on the issue of hate crimes, says that hate crimes have usually been committed against disabled persons "behind closed doors-in homes and in institutions. Now that people with disabilities are becoming visible-in the workplace, in stores, on the streets-more hate crimes are being committed out in the open."Waxman, the project director for the National Disability Reproductive Health Access Project in Cupertino, California, places hate crimes against the disabled within the framework of the current backlash. "There's a feeling that disabled people are taking away the rights and resources of those who are more deserving," she says. "Resentment of disabled people is now being publicly expressed-in Congress, the media, in conversation, and in hate crimes."The idea that people can hate the disabled is hard for many to take seriously, says Lolly Lijewski, of the Metro Center for Independent Living, an advocacy organization for disabled persons in St. Paul, Minnesota. She explains, "We're taught from the time we're kids to pity disabled people-to 'help the handicapped.' So it's difficult to believe that there's hatred out there against people with disabilities," she says. "But some are upset that the disability community is asserting its rights. For example, a businessman recently said in one of our local newspapers that disabled people 'should have three meals a day and a roof over their heads, but I think we have to draw the line somewhere. I don't think that they can have total freedom.' This man isn't advocating the perpetration of hate crimes; but the current climate is fostering the seeds of hatred from which hate crimes grow."Helen Kutz, director of the client-assistance project of the Office of Handicapped Concerns in Oklahoma City, says, "It's painful for those of us who are disabled to admit that sometimes people hate us. The disability community needs to come to grips with the issue of hate crimes: we may not want to admit it, but hate crimes are happening."She tells what happened one night to a man she knows with cerebral palsy: "He was walking home after socializing with some of his friends. Suddenly, some guys stopped him, picked him up, threw him in a trash can, and put the lid on it. While they did this, they called out epithets regarding his disability, saying, 'You belong in the trash, you cripple.'"He got himself out of the trash can, but it took a very long time. The cerebral palsy makes his gait unsteady and affects his speech. Because of his speech defect, he couldn't yell for help."Hostility against those with mental illness and mental retardation is particularly acute. Joseph Rogers, deputy executive director of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, says, "This hostility runs the gamut from epithets to fire bombings of group homes for people with mental illness or mental retardation. It comes out of the fear and loathing that people have of those who are different from them. People don't want disabled people living in their communities-especially people with mental illness."Rogers, a former mental patient, describes an incident that occurred more than twenty years ago when he was living in a group home in Florida. "One night when a friend and I were taking a walk, some guys drove by and threw a Coke bottle at us," he recalls. "The bottle hit my friend, but what hurt more than that was the things that those guys were shouting at us. They were yelling, 'You fucking crazies! Get the fuck out of our neighborhood.' "Unfortunately, Rogers says, things haven't changed. "Across the country, group homes for mentally ill people are the recipients of threatening phone calls and letters as well as bombs."For example, in Newark, New Jersey, a notice was taped to the door of a group home which had not yet opened that said, "If you open this home in this neighborhood, we're going to burn this place down." Later a lit firebomb was thrown onto the porch of the home, Rogers says.During the 1994 elections, campaign literature centering on housing where a number of mentally retarded people lived was distributed in Elizabeth, New Jersey, that preyed upon "public fears and misconceptions about disabled people," says Marshall Bord, assistant executive director of Community Access Unlimited, an advocacy group for people with disabilities based in Elizabeth. "A candidate running for city council put out a flyer that referred to the disabled people living in our housing as 'deranged or demented.' We were incensed that such derogatory, demeaning terms would appear on campaign literature." The candidate who distributed the flyer didn't win the election. But Bord, who is a member of the Elizabeth Human Rights Commission, didn't want matters to stop there. Nor did the other members of the Commission.Helene Scheuer, executive director of Elizabeth's Human Rights Commission, says that the Commission has asked all candidates in the fall elections whose constituencies include Elizabeth to sign a pledge stating, "I . . . promise not to negatively use race, religion, gender, national origin, sexual preference, or handicapping conditions as an issue in my campaign."Bord says, "Of course the candidates can't be forced to sign the pledge. But we hope the pledge sends a message that bigotry and hateful literature won't be acceptable in our elections."While it is well organized on other concerns, the disability community hasn't yet organized around the issue of hate crimes, says Reva Trevino of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. Trevino works for the Commission's Network Against Hate Crime."If a constituency wants to combat hate crime, it must teach its members how to identify and report hate crimes," she says.Disabled people need to organize, just as gays and lesbians and other targets of violent backlash have organized, to combat hate and to insist on our right to live in a civil society.SIDEBAR by Mike Ervin: Getting Tough On Kids In Wheelchairs It is a sign of how depraved things have gotten in Washington that Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress are whipping up resentment against people with disabilities in general and kids with disabilities in particular.Long before there was an Americans with Disabilities Act, there was Public Law 94-142, passed in 1975, which made it clear that states were to provide a "free and appropriate" public education to all disabled kids. Before that law, states had been shirking their responsibilities so that about a million disabled kids were receiving no education at all, let alone a segregated, inferior one.This law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has been without question the most important catalyst in the enormous social progress people with disabilities have made over the last twenty years. But to hear some teachers and lobbyists moan about it, you'd think it was the major reason our schools are so violent and financially strapped.The American Federation of Teachers ran one of those pseudo-op-ed advertisements in The New York Times that told the "typical story" of a special-ed kid in a mainstream classroom who would "scream, throw furniture," and eat paste. Because Congress is due to reauthorize IDEA this fall, the AFT and five other groups are lobbying for an amendment that would allow school districts to kick out any disabled kid who is disruptive in any way.This would accomplish AFT's goal of making it easy for schools to disregard kids who are too expensive or too difficult to serve: that's the same attitude that made IDEA necessary in the first place.Kids with disabilities are also the targets of the crusade to cut Social Security. The House voted in March to cut off SSI payments to 200,000 disabled children-about 30 percent of current recipients. The Senate approved cuts in September that are less severe but will still mean mass purging. Families need SSI to pay for things like wheelchairs and extra medical and transportation costs not covered by Medicaid. To qualify for SSI, a child's family must meet a strict standard of poverty; they won't be able to afford these aids on their own.Adults with disabilities are in the cross hairs, too. The proposed cuts of $270 billion and $180 billion in future Medicare and Medicaid spending are a cause of deep worry. Insurance companies are exempt from the ban on discrimination embodied in the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions that threaten profits. That often leaves nowhere to turn but Medicare. Those who have to rely on Medicaid must virtually bankrupt themselves to qualify for the program, and many do.Housing is under attack in a House appropriations bill that would eliminate all new, low- income rental-assistance funds. This type of HUD housing has been essential in providing the transitional link to independence from nursing homes and other oppressive institutions for disabled people on fixed incomes who cannot immediately afford market rent. That's why people with disabilities make up about 15 percent of those receiving this assistance. I lived in a subsidized apartment when I first got out on my own.The political power of the disability community has so far proved pretty effective in the face of this backlash. The ADA and IDEA were exempted from unfunded-mandates legislation. But there's no time to relax. House Majority Leader Dick Armey has called the ADA a "disaster" and has vowed to lead a move to have it "revisited" and rewritten. Fellow Texas Republicans Bill Archer, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and Tom DeLay, the majority whip, along with Armey are among only twenty-eight members of Congress who voted against the ADA.They want to get America straightened out by getting tough with those damn demanding kids in wheelchairs.(Mike Ervin is a disabled activist and freelance writer in Chicago)

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