Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

February, 2010:

How to Respond to Hate Violence?

In memory of Dorothy Dixon, Jennifer Daugherty, and countless others….

I can’t find adequate words to express my revulsion, outrage, sadness, and fear at reading about the brutal murder of Jennifer Daugherty, a Pennsylvania woman with an intellectual impairment. (Warning: That link will take you to a news article which includes sickening details that may disturb and trigger some readers.)

I’ve written before about hate crimes targeting people with disabilities, but not much. It’s one topic about which I feel inarticulate, often lacking in insights or ideas. Perhaps it’s because I really can’t get inside the mind or heart of someone who would commit such deliberate acts of torture against someone they perceive as “abnormal.” Perhaps I don’t even want to try. Also, hate crimes against disabled people have been rendered largely invisible in the media, so that any writer broaching this topic must push through several layers of disbelief. People literally doubt that such things happen. Or, they may express anger at the occasional incident, like this latest killing, but not be willing or able to see it as part of a larger system of oppression based on disability.

The six individuals alleged to have participated in this atrocity bear the biggest share of blame. I can only speculate that their actions arose out of some unimaginable combination of sadism, cowardice, fear of difference, deep discomfort with their own human vulnerability, and mob mentality.

This is by no means an isolated incident, however. And it didn’t happen in a vacuum. I would argue that social conditions helped make this crime possible. Aside from being outnumbered six-to-one, Ms. Daugherty had far less power than her perpetrators. Despite what sounds like a supportive family, she lived in a society that separates disabled people from their nondisabled peers — in school, in community groups, in “special” programs of all kinds. She may have had few opportunities to learn personal safety skills or self-defense. Many of her previous interactions with nondisabled people may have been characterized by prejudice, discomfort, rejection, and/or teasing, all based on the negative stereotypes perpetuated by media, and by widespread scorn for those labeled “retards.” So that by the time Ms. Daugherty became involved in a community center, and met some people who pretended to be friendly to her, she was probably so eager for connection that she failed to recognize, or overlooked, any warning signs. This cannot be blamed on her own personality, or on her cluelessness, or on her disability. Her history of segregation and of limited choices set her up for it.

It’s one thing to mourn this woman’s terrible death, and to analyze its roots. But I’m left wondering how else to respond. First, I call on all disabled women to join in expressing solidarity with Jennifer Daugherty, anger at her killers and at the social conditions that disempowered her, and determination to fight with all our sisters against oppression and violence.

Second, I invite all people who care about nonviolence and justice — feminists, human rights activists, and others — to connect the dots, to recognize this and other disability hate crimes as manifestations of serious power imbalances based on disability oppression.

Third, I call on the legal system to ensure equal treatment under the law for Ms. Daugherty. Don’t let society’s devaluation of disabled people follow her into death. Her so-called “vulnerability” is not the point; her minority status, targeted by the perpetrators, is the point. There should be no doubt that this is a hate crime. It should be prosecuted as such.

Fourth, I call on educators to instill in all their students the ability to celebrate all kinds of differences. Model respect and self-respect. Intervene in situations where children are bullying or shunning each other. Teach and support healthy friendships.

Finally, I call on journalists, writers, poets, and other cultural workers see and hear what is happening to too many members of our community of people with disabilities. Name these crimes. Honor those who are targeted, as valuable people whose lives mean something. Avoid clichés that emphasize the victims’ weakness. Focus instead on the reasons why this happens so often. Refuse to accept it.

Debating Advocacy Priorities: Free the Oppressed, or Promote Employment?

Always willing to challenge the disability rights movement with provocative ideas, my friend Josie Byzek has now written a column calling on our advocacy movement to make employment a top priority. It hasn’t been, says Josie, and “this has got to change.” She questions the wisdom of expending so much of the movement’s energy and resources on the nursing home issue. She argues that we should shift attention to employment advocacy, so that improved job opportunities will help keep people from getting so poor that they end up institutionalized.

I have a couple of quibbles with Josie’s column. (I don’t think she’ll mind me airing my critique. I know Josie well to know that she enjoys a healthy, respectful debate.)

First of all, Josie’s article attributes the lack of focus on employment, in part, to “a community organizing model that erroneously teaches change can only come from the very bottom up.” She goes on to make this questionable claim: “I can’t think of a single successful social change movement that was initiated and propagated primarily by the poorest of the poor, the most oppressed of the oppressed. Social change, in actuality, typically begins in the middle class.”

When I read this statement, Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement leapt immediately to mind: Poor, disenfranchised, marginalized by class, race, and language, these laborers organized a massive and ultimately successful grape boycott to protest their exploitation by the agricultural industry.

Then I thought of those drag queens rioting at the Stonewall Inn, fighting back against police harassment and other forms of discrimination. These unsung heroes in high heels, mostly low-income people of color, sparked the modern lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) movement. (If anything, that movement’s takeover by the middle class has threatened to derail it. Instead of demanding real justice, and the right to be ourselves in any environment, the LGBT movement’s loudest current demands are to be allowed to assimilate into two of our society’s most oppressive institutions: marriage and the military.)

So I disagree that a grassroots, bottom-up advocacy model is wrong for the disability rights community. Having said that, I agree with Josie about the importance of job opportunities. Our community should be outraged by the fact that only around 37 percent of disabled Americans are employed. Like Josie, I would like to see a more aggressive “push for policies that truly can shift that unemployment rate.”

This is more than a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue. The International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — which took effect in 2008, and which has been ratified by 78 countries (though not yet by the United States) — recognizes “the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities. (Article 27).” It goes on to call for nondiscrimination, reasonable accommodation, affirmative action, training and placement services, self-employment opportunities, and more.

And just as important, I think, is Article 28 of the Convention, which recognizes “the right of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions…”

Our disability advocacy movement needs to prioritize economic issues, including but not limited to employment. Certainly, everyone should have access to opportunities to use their skills and talents for financial reward, for this increases our choices in life, and improves our own and our families’ well-being. Most disabled people are denied those opportunities. In the U.S., disabled people’s lives tend to enrich other people, while leaving us relatively poor. Many of us aren’t allowed to earn a living; if we do, we can lose the very supports that keep us alive and out of nursing homes. There are a few loopholes, called work incentive programs, but these are quite complex, and people who use them frequently face bureaucrats’ suspicion and mistreatment.

Furthermore, workplaces can be very unfriendly to people with significant disabilities. I’m not just talking about blatant prejudice. I’m talking about corporate structures that barely tolerate any human needs or differences on the part of workers. Schedules and duties can be rigid, office politics can be baffling, and organizational cultures can be downright brutal. Even non-disabled workers have difficulty with these aspects of many job environments; for workers with chronic physical conditions, or mental health issues, they can become insurmountable barriers. Yet the rehabilitation industry, and even employment advocates, focus mostly on getting disabled people “ready for the job market.” I think we need to advocate for fundamental changes in the U.S. workplace, beyond just a reasonable accommodation to an individual’s disability. We need to reconfigure corporate America, to make it serve workers and consumers — indeed, to make it serve the public good — rather than to funnel resources upward into an ever-growing concentration of wealth.

And while I agree with Josie that we “ought to be delinking disability from poverty,” I also think we ought to be delinking poverty from suffering. No human being should endure deprivation of basic material needs such as housing, food, and clean water. In the spirit of Article 28, we must advocate for “an adequate standard of living… and… continuous improvement of living conditions.”

Which brings us back to the nursing home issue. We should demand job opportunities, for anyone with a disability who can and wants to work. But as long as so many of us live with the fear of losing our right to live in the community, we must focus on freedom instead.