Over the last year, America has been roiled by several high-profile incidents of African American deaths during encounters with police, forcing a welcome re-examination of the lingering presence of racism.
Why didn’t the deaths of Ethan Saylor and James Boyd prompt the same strong, nationwide response?
Ethan was the 26-year old with Down syndrome who went to see "Zero Dark Thirty" with an 18-year old aide at Regal Cinemas in Frederick, Maryland, in 2013.
Still, according to reports, the officers dragged Ethan from his seat and tried to handcuff him. When police forced him to the ground, Ethan died of asphyxiation, due to an unusual fracture of his throat cartilage – possibly a result of a blow he received during the struggle.
James Boyd was reportedly shot fatally in the back by police in Albuquerque in March 2014 after a long standoff, prompting murder charges against the officers involved. Many have asked whether this outcome could have been prevented had police had been better trained to deal with Boyd’s mental illness.
To be sure, stories about Ethan and James, as well as others involving people with disabilities, sometimes result in a spate of media coverage for a time, some localized protest and investigations by federal authorities. But they hardly trigger the national outrage they deserve.
Of course, not every conflict between police and a person with disability results in death, but people with disabilities are still vulnerable to police mistreatment. There are no reliable figures on just how many people with disabilities were involved in altercations with police, but anecdotes abound.
For example, in a recent complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice about police abuse of students in a Louisiana school system, the Southern Poverty Law Center cited several examples of what appear to be excessive force against students with disabilities – including a ten-year-old girl with autism, whom police handcuffed and held face down on the ground by kneeling on her back “with her face pressed so closely to the ground that she was having difficulty breathing.”
Freddie Gray, whose death in Baltimore set off a fire storm, also reportedly suffered from an intellectual disability that resulted from lead poisoning at an early age.
All these cases are complicated, and we are certainly not in an appropriate position to judge ultimately who is culpable. But cases like these suggest that police need to go further to understand how best to approach persons with disabilities. Force is often the worst option.
Like those African American young men who died in clashes with police over the last year, Ethan and James were part of another highly marginalized minority group that suffers daily indignities – large and small – that accumulate and hold them back over a lifetime. More than any other group in the world, people with disabilities are the poorest people. They have the highest unemployment rates, the least access to health care, and they are in the poorest health.
What’s sad is the gap of understanding about people with disabilities is completely avoidable. There is an unwarranted and arbitrary separation of people with disabilities from the mainstream of life, which preserves the mystery and myth about them. It reinforces our view of them as “other,” odd, potentially dangerous and a little unsettling to be around.
Anyone who has managed or participated in a classroom or workplace that embraces people with disabilities will tell you that unsettled feeling evaporates as familiarity grows. It’s a simple fact of human existence. The more we know about people as individuals – about their lives, their families, their desires and worries, their qualities and, yes, their human faults – the less we see them as an abstraction. The less we see past them and fear them.
To be fair, a number of law enforcement agencies are aware of the need to know more about how to deal people with disabilities, and some provide appropriate training for these encounters. “When police fail to understand that they are dealing with a person with a special condition,” the Police Executive Research Forum wrote in a 2012 report, “the result is sometimes a use of force that may be legally and morally justifiable, especially if the person appeared to be threatening the safety of others, but which produces a very unfortunate outcome — a situation that some observers call ‘lawful, but awful.’”
But advocates argue that big cutbacks in local and state human services have increasingly forced police to step into the roles that social workers otherwise have taken and that many police may be unprepared to fulfill.
The national conversation about race we’re having right now, even at its most rancorous, is essential and long overdue. But we also need a similarly serious one about the rights of many others among us who also face severe disadvantage and marginalization. We must talk about how we can include them in the mainstream of society. We shouldn't wait for the next casualty.
Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for inclusion of people with disabilities in the broader society. Simons is the president and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers in Massachusetts, which provides people with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disabilities opportunities to discover the benefits of a supportive and vibrant community.