On 23 October, 2007, a burning car containing the severely damaged remains of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca Hardwick was discovered in England, prompting a detailed coroner’s inquest and a subsequent media explosion.
Francecca, 18, had developmental disabilities and along with her mother had endured taunting, abuse, and threats from neighborhood youths.
Fiona had contacted law enforcement 33 times begging for help with the situation, but eventually she was driven to murder-suicide by a lethal combination of inaction, limited social support, and increasing pressure from her daughter’s tormenters. The case attracted international attention and for a brief moment, it seemed like disability hate crimes might end up on the radar and spark a larger, and brutally necessary, conversation.
Alas, such was not to be; the issue quickly slid to the back burner, while disabled people continued to be victims of horrifically sadistic hate crimes that almost defy the imagination.
In 1999 a man named Eric Krochmaluk, who had cognitive disabilities, was kidnapped, taped to a chair, and tortured, complete with choking, burning with cigarettes, and burning, before being abandoned in the woods to fend for himself. He’s just one example of hundreds of people who have been beaten, raped, held captive, and tormented because they were disabled.
Just this year, the Feds took advantage of revamped hate crimes laws from 2009 for their first disability-related hate crime prosecution in a horrific case of abuse, torture, racketeering, and murder. The case involved a group of conspirators who worked from 2001-2011 in Philadelphia, exploiting disabled victims, keeping them prisoner, and using them for forced labor.
A recently-released study in the UK showed one in four disabled passengers on trains reporting hate crimes.
Just today, there’s a story in the news about a beating and robbery of a disabled man in Boston. Another story, from Canada, about a 17-year-old girl sentenced for her role in a group attack on a disabled man. In an intersection of domestic violence and ableist hate crimes (about which more in a moment), a man recently beat his disabled girlfriend to death.
Meanwhile, the family of Adam Holland, a young man with Down syndrome who just became an internet meme, is suing over the derogatory use of an altered image of Adam. What happens when someone becomes a meme, and that meme revolves specifically around that person’s disability status, with disability itself intended as a figure for mockery or gawking? His family are arguing it’s a prejudicial use of the image, falling into the category of bullying and abuse. Others seem to think it’s “free speech.”
Disability hate crimes, as in attacks on disabled people motivated and driven by their disability status, are distressingly common. Yet, they tend to be underreported: FBI data in 2007 identified only 97 hate crimes nationwide as disability hate crimes, which is a suspiciously low number, especially when contrasted with the much higher number disabled people reported in surveys of their own community.
This illustrated a profound mismatch between law enforcement handling of disability hate crimes and the experiences of the community, but it did more than that. It highlighted the fact that many disabled people do not report, or choose to understate, hate crimes. Understanding why this happens is an important part of fighting disability hate crimes, as it’s difficult to take meaningful action on a dangerous social trend when it’s hard to even find accurate statistics on it.
The Leadership Conference notes a dual issue here. The first problem:
For instance, hate crimes against people with disabilities are often never reported to law enforcement agencies. The victim may be ashamed, afraid of retaliation, or afraid of not being believed. The victim may be reliant on a caregiver or other third party to report the crime, who fails to do so. Or, the crime may be reported, but there may be no reporting of the victim's disability, especially in cases where the victim has an invisible disability that they themselves do not divulge.
The same issues come into play with issues like rape or domestic violence and disability; often, the person committing the crime is actually a family member, caregiver, or “friend,” which may intimidate the victim into not reporting. When the person abusing you is also the person you’re dependent on for tasks of daily living and independence, the stakes for reporting can be extremely high, and you may not be willing to chance it.
Perhaps the biggest reason for underreporting of disability-based hate crimes is that disability-based bias crimes are all too frequently mislabeled as "abuse" and never directed from the social service or education systems to the criminal justice system. Even very serious crimes — including rape, assault, and vandalism — are too-frequently labeled "abuse."
If you don’t accurately identify crimes, or you downgrade their severity, it’s a neat way to disappear them, but it doesn’t resolve the larger issue. Those crimes are still happening, it’s just that now they are passing unremarked, which makes them that much more difficult to combat.
From a law enforcement perspective, clear national guidelines on what constitutes a disability hate crime and how to handle hate crimes reporting are critical reforms. So is disability education for individual departments and agencies so they can understand how to handle such cases and how to identify specific problems that nondisabled individuals don’t face. Such training also, of course, needs to include anti-bias work to address the issue of bias within law enforcement agencies themselves.
From a social perspective, victim reporting must be more accessible, in both literal and metaphorical senses. Many resources for crime victims are not accessible: women’s shelters may lack ramps and other accommodations for people with mobility impairments, sign language interpreters are often not available at victims’ groups, and law enforcement agencies may not be trained in handling victims who use communication boards or need aides for assistance.
These basic and fundamental barriers may make it impossible for a victim to report even when there’s a desire and a will to do so.
Tragically, that desire and will are often absent because of worries about physical and social safety and a desire to fit in at any cost -- many cases involving people who were repeatedly tortured note that the victim thought the abusers were her “friends” and she was willing to do anything to be accepted, for example. And, for people who experience disability-based harassment and violence regularly, a vicious feedback loop can be created, where people feel like they are defined by their disabilities and may even come to believe that they deserve that abuse.
Addressing these issues requires a larger social commitment to tackling ableism among other prejudices, and to noting how and where it intersects with other social issues. For example, young Black men with autism or hearing impairments have been shot by police on multiple occasions for failing to comply with orders from police, simply because they couldn’t hear or understand them and were viewed as dangerous because of their race.
To address the way ableism creates and compounds hate crimes, we first need to admit that it's an issue, and next must talk about how to put an end to it.
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, an event organized to explore ableism/disablism and their larger social impacts worldwide. Disability hate crimes are just one of the many issues faced by the disability community, and like so many other social problems that primarily affect minority groups, they’re largely ignored by the culture around them.
So many facets of disabled identity, culture, and experience are explored on this annual event that I hardly know where to begin, but I highly recommend visiting the master list of participating blogs. BADD is a great opportunity for nondisabled people to get acquainted with disability issues and perhaps find some disability bloggers they want to follow. I know that as a disabled participant, I always find something new, interesting, and thought-provoking to explore during BADD.
You might come away with a new issue to take up as a cause -- maybe it will be disability hate crimes, maybe it will be housing discrimination, maybe it will be education rights for disabled people, maybe it will be something else entirely -- or a deeper understanding of life for disabled people and the tremendous diversity of the disabled experience.