There is a silent and unspoken crisis that is affecting millions of people in the world, violence against disabled persons. Living with a disability is correlated to higher instances of violence and experiences that make people question their safety. There is no task force, political push, depth of research or increase in advocacy. These experiences can be invisible or unspoken in society, much like how disability itself can be viewed. Living with a disability is challenging. Those challenges might be one some could identify when asked (mobility concerns, access issues, medical challenges), but violence is also a real issue, and one that we don’t talk about.
Disabled persons are victimized at almost four times more than those without disabilities (crimes against persons with disabilities, 2009- 2019- statistical tables, n.d.). Additionally, persons with a disability are three times more likely to experience not only crime, but serious violent crimes like sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery (Morgan, n.d.).
I have cerebral palsy. My body moves differently. It is visible (my knees often bend toward each other, I walk with a visible difference). I have reduced mobility and dexterity. I am disabled and I have experienced violence and aggression.
I have faced less aggressive incidents such as verbal aggression, like when a woman at the dog park who tried to deny me access to the park due to “not having a dog.” Despite explaining that I had fallen, was bleeding, and a friend had gone ahead to take my dog–despite this explanation, multiple times she stated, “You can’t come in. Show me your dog.” Now one could chalk this up to tempers flaring and personal circumstances, but this is the most tame of these experiences.
I was standing at the bus stop and someone was yelling and visibly upset. They yelled in my direction and I made eye contact. They came up to me inches from my face and began to yell. I explained I was not trying to upset them and mentioned my disability. This person then began to make remarks about my disability and saying they were going to hit me as they postured toward me and put their hands up. Eventually, after more remarks and insults about my disability, it was over. I avoided them on the bus and got off at my stop. This was about six months ago and unfortunately, it has begun a trend.
Why do those with disabilities like me, face more instances of violence, aggression, and crimes? Well we may never know for sure. Research suggests it could be due to perceived vulnerability. To underscore this fact, disabled people are more likely to face violence in daytime hours in comparison to others (Morgan, n.d.). This could point to not just a perceived vulnerability, but an overall lack of security no matter the time of day. As a therapist, I can consider the possible mental health components of aggressors such as poor distress tolerance (not being able to manage distress without acting out), poor coping skills, lack of anger management skills. It is also important to consider the importance of power and control. Simply put, these instances can cause disabled persons to feel disempowered and a lack of control over their safety and security. The aggressors could have felt a loss of control and sought out a way to exert some, or used a position of power to exert power over someone else.
The most impactful incident thus far occurred last week, I was walking home. I was in a fair amount of pain. I had my knee pads on for protection from falls and a busy day ahead. I unknowingly was near a local school, Gindi Maimonides Academy. I had never been here before. I did not see any children or any signs posted. I was just walking trying to prove to myself, despite a difficult day with my disability, that I could walk a mile and a half home with no falls and save some money on a rideshare.
I crossed the street and heard a scream. I stopped and looked around. I wanted to make sure everything was okay. I was approached by a security guard who came up with an air of aggression stating, “can I help you?”
I replied that I was just walking.
He said “this is a school, I can’t have you standing here being suspicious.”
I stated that I would never hurt a child, and that I was a social worker/therapist, out of pure shock, feeling a need to explain or defend myself.
The guard of the school then stated, “keep talking and you’re going to get yourself hurt.” I stood my ground and said “excuse me, who do you think you are?”
He then said, “Have a nice day sir.”
I challenged him, “Say it again.”
He then repeated, “keep walking or you’re going to get yourself hurt.”
I walked away feeling powerless, sad, and, angry. I called the school as I was walking home to file a complaint. I was once again invalidated that this was about feelings and not safety. I was met with, “I’m sorry you had your feelings hurt.”
I continued to advocate and got into contact with an administrator who concluded via email that they have been “able to pull up the footage.” I requested a copy and also explained that this was not about “feelings” after the school repeatedly stated this was about my feelings being hurt.
I was met with this response: “Dear Mark, The school’s security provider has identified as a significant risk factor any persons remaining stationary on the sidewalk in front of the school. As you were stationary on the sidewalk in front of the school, you were asked to move along in the same manner any other similarly situated person is asked. If you have any other questions, please contact Maimonides’ counsel. Thank you. Merav Cohen, Director of Administration”
If you consider threats of violence as the benchmark for your interactions with the public as “reasonable”, that is dangerous and you need to reevaluate your administration and security. A public sidewalk is public, a person with a disability stopping to rest is not a threat. The only threat in this situation was a security guard with an ax to grind and an administration that does not value the safety of the community, if violence and aggression are “reasonable.”
These experiences have led me to feel unsafe. I find myself questioning if I want to go out into the world. I think to myself, is something going to happen today? I have been training in martial arts for four years. This is a direct result of living with a disability. I make sure I watch my surroundings and keep myself ready in case I need to respond. People have suggested wearing a body cam at all times. Selfishly, I shouldn’t have to. People with disabilities should not have to worry about their safety from others while navigating the world. I can only speak for myself, but I have to consider day to day, without the added weight.
So in sharing these stories and these facts, I hope to bring awareness to this crisis and make the invisible, visible. I also want others with disabilities to know, you are not alone. You are seen and you are supported. If you don’t have a disability, I want to share a little of an experience that you might not have encountered before. I also want to request a call for action, self-awareness. We all face challenges everyday. The world is stressful. So, if you’re struggling, reach out. Ask for support. It’s the best thing you can do for you and for those who you meet. The one truth in the response from the school, we all deserve dignity, respect and safety. They however were wrong about the simple truth that underlies the interaction with them and with others mentioned. This is not about “feelings.” This is about safety. This is about human rights.
Morgan, C. (n.d.). The unacknowledged crisis of violence against disabled people – center for disability rights. Cdrnys.org. Retrieved May 21, 2023, from https://cdrnys.org/blog/advocacy/the-unacknowledged-crisis-of-violence-against-disabled-people/
United States. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2017). Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2015 by E. Harrell. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/capd0915st.pdf