Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Violence against people with disabilities invisible hate crimes

The intro to a feature story in Miller-McCune:

In February 2010, Jennifer Daugherty, a 30-year-old, mentally challenged woman from Greensburg, Pa., was brutally murdered by six people pretending to be her good friends. Holding her hostage for days, the perpetrators allegedly tortured Daugherty, shaving her head, binding her with Christmas decorations, beating her with a towel rack and vacuum cleaner, feeding her detergent, urine and various medications and then forcing her to write a suicide note, before stabbing her to death.

The sadistic attack on Daugherty was anything but unique. Still, few Americans are aware of the special vulnerability of people with emotional, intellectual and physical disabilities to extraordinary violence. Thinking of crimes inspired by hate or bias, most people conjure an image of a burning cross on the lawn of a black family, or swastikas scrawled on the walls of a synagogue. They may recall the name of James Byrd, the black American in Jasper, Texas, who was dragged for miles to his death behind a pickup truck by three white supremacists, or they might think of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was viciously beaten and then tied to a fence, left to die in the desert outside of Laramie, Wyo.

But the same Americans may have legal and emotional “tunnel vision,” not seeing a hate crime in the brutal murder of Jennifer Daugherty, even though she was apparently singled out only because of her intellectual deficit.

Thirty-two states have hate crime statutes to protect people who have disabilities, but 18 states still do not. At the end of October 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, bringing a uniform approach to the protection of hate crime victims that was not possible when matters were left to the states. The Shepard/Byrd legislation expanded federal hate crimes law to include offenses motivated by a victim’s disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, the new law eliminated a requirement that hate crime victims be engaged in a federally protected activity — for example, the right to live in the residence of your choice — to qualify for protection.

Still, attacks on people with disabilities are often overlooked because many people are not aware of the extreme vulnerability to maltreatment that accompanies such disorders as cerebral palsy, autism, multiple sclerosis, learning disabilities and mental illness — even though, according to anonymous victim accounts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the 54 million Americans with disabilities experience serious violence at a rate nearly twice that of the general population. Their risk of being a victim of sexual assault is at least four times higher than that of people without disabilities. In 2008 alone, Americans with disabilities were victims of about 47,000 rapes, 79,000 robberies, 114,000 aggravated assaults and 476,000 simple assaults. Adding to the trauma of victimization, people with disabilities are much less likely than able-bodied victims to seek medical treatment for their injuries, often choosing, instead, to suffer in silence.

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 bias against disabilities as a motivation for an assault. For the year 2009, just 97 or about 1 percent of the 7,789 hate crimes recognized by the police in FBI data reportedly targeted people with disabilities. (Of that total, 72 reports were designated as anti-mental disability crimes, and 25 were anti-physical disability crimes). This appears to represent a tremendous underestimate. When it surveyed nationally representative individuals anonymously about their experiences with crimes — even offenses not reported to the police — the Department of Justice determined that more than 11 percent of all hate crimes targeted people with disabilities. In other words, by asking victims rather than the police, the Justice Department found the number of disablist attacks numbered in the thousands.

And that’s not to mention another problem: Hate offenses are underreported, generally.