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David M. Perry: To be disabled in America is to be at greater risk of violence

General public -- and even many disabled people -- aren't focused on issue of such violence he says

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog: “How Did We Get Into This Mess?” Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

It’s a horrific incident. On Tuesday afternoon, Chicago police found a young man wearing shorts, wandering the streets, clearly in distress. They matched him to a missing persons call from a nearby suburb. Over the next day, gruesome details emerged of what had happened to the 18-year-old, mentally disabled male. According to police, the young man was kidnapped and tortured, his abuse streamed live over Facebook. The alleged assailants are black, and at one point on the video, a male voice can be heard yelling, “”f*ck Donald Trump” and “f*ck white people.” Four individuals have been charged.

David M. Perry
David M. Perry

The racist comments are inflammatory. People – via both formal and social media – have expressed outrage. But while the nature of the remarks on the video have unsurprisingly sparked much discussion about race, Trump and the live streaming of crimes, something important risks being overlooked: the chilling, everyday, truth that to be disabled in America is to be at greater risk of violence.

According to CNN, local law enforcement officials have charged the four suspects with a “hate crime, felony aggravated kidnapping, aggravated unlawful restraint and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.” But much of the speculation over whether this was a hate crime has focused on the issue of race.

People with disabilities are, of course, protected under both federal and Illinois hate crime legislation. To qualify under current federal law, according to Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former Department of Justice official, the crime must involve interstate commerce in some way. He told me that broadcasting over Facebook Live might make such a prosecution possible.

The Illinois statute, for its part, defines a hate crime as a criminal act against someone “by reason of the actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals, regardless of the existence of any other motivating factor or factors.” If the victim was singled out for his disability, that should be reason enough in Illinois.

In fact, people with disabilities are often victims of violent crime. The latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows that people with disabilities were 2.5 times more likely to experience violent victimization than people without disabilities. Moreover, disability is an intensifying factor when it comes to understanding how at-risk groups experience violence.

Lydia Brown, a disabled writer, organizer and educator, has looked at the use of hate crime legislation in cases involving disabilities. Thirty-six states have hate crimes laws listing disability to some degree, but that doesn’t mean they are actually using the laws actively in disability-related crimes. And while Brown is concerned about mass incarceration, violence against disabled people should still be handled equitably.

“When someone kills disabled people, it’s usually not given the same degree of seriousness of zeal in prosecution as when the victim is not disabled,” Brown said. “That doesn’t mean the solution is to lock up more people, but it does mean society does not treat ableist violence as seriously.”

I spoke to Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability, about the problem. “Violence against people with disabilities is a national problem, regardless of Zip Code,” she said, adding that we can only address such violence by engaging the many ways that stigma and discrimination against disabled people (ableism) intersect with other forms of hate like racism, sexism, or homophobia.

“The voices of disabled people must be centered in justice reform. Complex problems require comprehensive solutions,” she said.

Unfortunately, the general public – and even many disabled people – aren’t focused on this issue. Amber Smock, director of advocacy at Access Living, a Chicago based disability rights and services organization, told me: “The public tends to be unaware that people with disabilities have rights as a protected class against hate crimes. We deserve that recognition as a protected class. We believe that many people with disabilities themselves need to know that they, too, can fight back against hate crimes.”

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But fighting back takes allies in the legal system. They can be hard to find. Indeed, over the past year, I’ve been following a case in Idaho where a black, disabled teen was allegedly lured into the locker room by three white teammates from the football team. Court reports say he was grabbed and anally raped with a coat hanger.

The local prosecutor, however, declined to press hate crime or sex crime charges, instead accepting a guilty plea to a lesser felony of “injury to a child,” which will carry no jail time.

“It’s not our belief that this was a racially motivated crime. This was more of a vulnerable-victim motivated crime,” the prosecutor said. “I think it probably would have happened to anybody that was in the same kind of circumstances and mental state as the victim here.”

In other words, because the victim was attacked due to his disability, the crime isn’t being treated as seriously.

Kidnappings and torture matched with inflammatory racist statements that are broadcast on Facebook Live are rare. But the reality is that violence against people with disabilities is all too common. We need a legal system and a society that recognizes the vulnerability – and shared humanity – of all disabled people.