The Boston Herald

May 19, 2010 Wednesday ALL EDITIONS

Op-Ed; Disabled vulnerable to violence



LENGTH: 614 words Last week, a 19-year-old Mattapan man with a
developmental disability was brutally attacked on a Dorchester street
by a group of nine young people. The bloodied victim who later
described himself to police as ``slow and challenged'' screamed and
pleaded for help as the perpetrators threw him to the ground and
repeatedly kicked, beat, and choked him.

This attack on a person with an intellectual deficit was anything but
unique, yet few Americans are aware of the special vulnerability of
people with disabilities to extraordinary violence.

Five staff members at a Louisiana psychiatric facility were arrested
recently for battering their patients with hand weights and inserting
bleach into their open wounds.  Jennifer Daugherty, a 30-year-old
mentally disabled woman from rural Pennsylvania, was tortured and
killed in February by six offenders pretending to be her good friends.
The perpetrators shaved Daugherty's head, bound her with Christmas
decorations, beat her with a towel rack and vacuum cleaner, fed her
detergent, urine, and various medications, and then stabbed her to

According to anonymous victim accounts from the Bureau of Justice
Statistics, individuals with a disability (especially those with a
developmental disability) experience serious violence at a rate nearly
twice that of the general population. In 2008 alone, persons with
disabilities were victims of about 47,000 rapes, 79,000 robberies,
114,000 aggravated assaults, and 476,000 simple assaults.  State and
federal law now recognize acts of violence against people with
disabilities as a hate crime. Statutes in 31 states include
disabilities among their protected categories along with race,
religion, and sexual orientation. In November 2009, President Barack
Obama signed a federal hate crime bill that expanded protection to
Americans based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and
disability status. In Massachusetts, assault and battery on a disabled
person carries a more severe maximum penalty than the same offense on
an able-bodied victim.

Yet violence against people with disabilities differs in important
ways from other hate crimes. Unlike racially motivated offenses,
disablist hate crimes tend to be committed less by strangers and more
by family members, neighbors, and friends who may also be caregivers.
Victims are reluctant to report attacks out of fear that their
tormentors will retaliate. Or, they may have a psychiatric or
intellectual deficit which interferes with their capacity to report a

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 disablist bias in the
motivation for an assault. In 2007-2008, only 157 of the more than
15,000 hate crimes reported by the police to the FBI targeted people
with physical, emotional, or intellectual disabilities. Obviously,
this represents a tremendous under-estimate of the problem.

A couple in suburban Chicago, both dependent on wheelchairs, planned
to install a ramp at the entrance of their single-family residence
until neighbors threw rocks through their windows and sent threatening
letters saying ``Your kind won't last here.'' The couple gave up and
moved away. They might have stayed in their home if they had received
some support and encouragement from their neighbors and the police.
We don't have to change the law, but we must change the thinking of
ordinary people who consider only race, religion, or sexual
orientation as grounds for bigotry.

Jack Levin is a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern
University and co-author of "The Violence of Hate.''