I want to share with you an update of an opinion piece I published this week in Commonwealth magazine online. Please take a moment to consider this serious problem.
Abuse of People with Disabilities Cannot be Tolerated: Laws and Attitudes Must Change
By Jay Ruderman
The abuse of children is so disturbing that we will go to any lengths to prevent, educate and prosecute in what can only be called a “war” aginst child abuse. However, just as disturbing but often lacking the headlines and the political will to prevent it, is abuse against people with disabilities. Unfortunately many people with disabilities can present a particularly easy target for abuse, as we have learned from recent incidents reported in the news.
In August, a person with a disability was beaten on a subway platform in Boston when he tried to help a woman who was arguing with three men. Earlier in the year, the father of a child with a disability in New Jersey suspected that his child was being abused by a school teacher and sent his child to school with a hidden recording device. The vitriol recorded by that teacher makes it too difficult for many to even listen to the entire recording.
These incidents and others like them demonstrate that we remain far from creating an inclusive society where people with disabilities are treated equally to those without a disability.
One can understand how such abuse occurs. Disabilities can prevent a person from getting away from an abuser or defending one’s self, and a person with a disability may be unable to call for help. Some with disabilities may be unable or limited in their ability to tell anyone what happened to them, making abuse against these individuals particularly ruthless and tragic.
More troubling yet, many people with disabilities don’t have friends or peers to help advocate for them, and this is due in part to the fact that our social, cultural, and employment institutions have not been fully open and welcoming to them.
We know the reporting of such abuse is far below the actual level of occurrence, because it goes unreported so often. This fact compounds the hurt and suffering reflected in the abuse data that we do have.
In one year from 2009 to 2010, cases of serious violent crimes such as rape and sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault against people with disabilities increased from 270,830 to 282,460, according to the United States Department of Justice.
In 2010, such instances of serious violent crime made up about half of all violence against people with disabilities– a rise of 36% from the previous year.
A story that ran on March 12, 2011 in the New York Times focused on appalling incidences in which employees of New York state’s group homes for people with disabilities abused the residents.
The story, “At State-Run Homes, Abuse and Impunity,” described how few allegations of criminal abuse were referred to law enforcement, even though state law requires these allegations be referred to authorities. The story also detailed widespread lack of accountability and oversight of employees, and how 25% of employees who had been accused of sexual, physical, and emotional assault – with each accusation supported by credible evidence – were transferred to work in other state-run homes.
The story reported the case of 47-year-old supervisor accused of sexually abusing a 54-year-old woman with severe disabilities. Evidence against him included an eye witness and physical evidence found on the victim. Despite the evidence, he was placed on administrative leave and then transferred to another group home. He eventually was arrested, tried, convicted of a misdemeanor, and spent less than a year in jail.
“Law enforcement officials had trouble explaining the delays and errors in the case and blamed the victim’s inability to communicate,” wrote the reporter in the Times article.
Blaming the victim: haven’t we learned to be better than this?
As a civilized society we cannot tolerate this level of abuse. It is an indictment of our values and a direct result of the lack of inclusion in our community and in our world.
In recent years, we have tackled the age-old problem of bullying. We educate our children about the hurt and suffering that result when a child is tormented. We have embraced a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and we now suspend or expel students when they bully others.
We must take the same approach to abuse of people with disabilities. We must view it as unacceptable in our society and commit to eradicate it at every level.
Yes, we need tougher laws and better enforcement. I know that as a former prosecutor. Even more difficult than changing laws– no mean feat in itself– we need to examine our values.
We must look ourselves in the mirror, search our souls, and admit: yes, we must do better.
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation