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

Question: Would Anyone Really “Hurt the Handicapped”? Answer: It Happens More Than You Think

Is there such a thing as a hate crime based on disability?

When President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law last month, much of the excitement centered around the inclusion of sexual orientation. I too am moved that federal protection has now been extended to LGBT folks attacked by those who cannot tolerate our different expressions and gender and/or sexuality.

Equally importantly, the bill also covers crimes targeting people with physical or mental disabilities. This aspect has received less attention, possibly because many people find the very concept of disability hate crime difficult to fathom. Who could hurt the handicapped? What kind of a dirty low-life would sink so low as to prey upon a helpless disabled person?

Ironically, these common questions reflect social biases which actually contribute to violence against people with disabilities. When we are lumped into a stereotype called “the handicapped,” and seen as easy targets, passive and vulnerable, then perpetrators are more likely to seek us out and to get away with their offenses. On the other hand, when we are active and respected in our communities, we can count on some natural protection: visibility, connectedness, and legal recourse.

Hate crimes targeting disabled people do occur. In 2007, the FBI tracked 82 hate crimes spurred by disability bias, the majority (62) directed at people with mental disabilities. Those federal statistics reflect only a fraction of this growing problem. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation recorded 42 hate crimes against disabled people, reflecting an 88% increase since 2007.

That figure represents only 1% of last year’s official incidents of hate violence, but I suspect it significantly underestimates the scope of the problem. Even more than other minority groups, disabled people are most likely to be victimized when they are isolated. Crimes against victims with disabilities often occur in segregated environments such as nursing facilities and residential schools. These offenses are less likely to be reported at all, and are more difficult to investigate.

Further distorting the statistics, crimes against people with disabilities rarely get framed as “hate crimes.” Other labels come more readily available, such as “abuse of a vulnerable adult,” “exploitation of an incapacitated person,” and others. These terms themselves contribute to a mindset that views people with disabilities as inherently weak, ripe for attack. Such thinking implicitly blames the disabled person, rather than the perpetrator, for the crime.

Though welcome, the new law may prove less effective in protecting my community. Attackers, more often than not, work in positions of power, in fields such as human services or law enforcement, and may therefore commit their crimes under cover of their authority. Will these offenses be counted as hate crimes?

Still, the new hate crimes law takes another step toward preventing violence against people with disabilities, if only because it recognizes both the value we offer to society, and the risks we face.

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