Black disabled Americans continue to face higher rates of police violence

Last month, the U.S. celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), legislation that explicitly states discrimination based on disability status is illegal.  However, we, as a society still have far to go.  Specifically, Black disabled Americans continue to face higher rates of police violence.  

While Americans nationwide continue to protest the scourge of systemic racism, it’s worth examining how a second form of discrimination is frequently employed to obscure or attempt to rationalize racist violence: ableism.

At its core, ableism is an ideological framework through which certain bodies and minds are valued over others based on socially constructed ideas of “normal,” with the consequence that anyone who deviates from those norms is deprived of equitable and respectful treatment.  However, racism and ableism are intertwined historically, with ableism, and in particular, the stigma around mental illness used throughout history to hide or justify racial violence.

In the 1850s, for example, enslaved Black people who tried to escape the horrors of slavery weren’t viewed as rational humans fleeing daily violence and inhumane treatment; rather, according to one popular medical manual of the era, many suffered from a mental illness called “drapetomania,” thought to manifest in “rude and ungovernable” behavior. So confident were medical professionals about the non-humanity of black people they viewed trying to escape slavery as evidence of a disorder. (And the cure for drapetomania, according to the founder of this illness, Dr. Cartwright? “Whipping the devil out of them.”) 

The first official statement on George Floyd’s death contained language that disability rights advocates recognize as ableism. One week after Mr. Floyd’s killing on June 1, the Hennepin County medical examiner issued autopsy findings that the cause of death was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” [emphasis mine]. A second autopsy, conducted by private medical examiners at the family’s request, found the cause of death to be mechanical asphyxiation.

Despite the fact that both reports determined the manner of death to be a homicide, the first report attributes the cause not solely to actions of the aggressor; rather, the phrase “complicating law enforcement subdual” suggests that the victim’s heart failure was partial to blame — as if most human hearts would somehow remain unaffected by a grown man kneeling on their neck for more than 8 minutes. 

Recent studies have found that death certificates often mention underlying health conditions when a deeper analysis shows the death was preventable and not actually attributable to the disability. A 2016 study by Catherine Barber and colleagues from Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Northeastern Department of Health Sciences found this to be an issue specifically in police-related deaths. According to the study published by the American Journal of Public Health (vol. 106, issue 5) researchers analyzed 1,552 police homicides in 16 states and found that when a coroner or medical examiner does not explicitly name police involvement as the cause of death, the phrase “homicide by underlying cause” is routinely employed, with a wide array of health conditions cited. 

Ignorance of disabilities is also a common factor in police violence. According to a 2016 report by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for the civil rights of people with disabilities, an estimated 33 to 50 percent of all police use-of-force incidents involve a disabled person.

Elijah McClain, a 23-year old massage therapist and violinist with chronic asthma and anemia was walking home one night in Aurora, Colorado last August from a nearby convenience store. He wore a ski mask and was dancing to music. Police were called and they confronted him, forcibly subdued him, and cut off his oxygen supply using a carotid chokehold. Mr. McClain vomited a few times, apologized, and said he “can’t breathe correctly.” Paramedics administered ketamine to sedate Mr. McClain, who then went into cardiac arrest. 

The autopsy report, finalized Nov. 7, 2019, found multiple abrasions to Mr. McClain’s face, back, and legs and hemorrhaging around his neck. It states the cause of death as “undetermined.” The forensic pathologist acknowledged the possibility of police homicide “if the actions of officers led to his death” but also cited the possibility of Mr. McClain dying from natural causes if he had “an undiagnosed mental illness that led to excited delirium,” which is not a diagnosis recognized in the DSM-5.

In Michigan’s official autopsy of George Floyd, “underlying health conditions” was listed as part of the cause of death. But George Floyd died because a police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and he could not breathe. By citing an underlying health condition, his death was attributed, in part, to a perceived disability in his heart — and not racial violence.

As a society, we are uncomfortable with disabled people and too often cast our own irrational prejudices onto Black bodies. As painful as it is to unpack our racist histories and belief systems, it is time to confront our deep-seated prejudices towards — or lack of regard for — people with disabilities and those with black skin.

By failing to reckon with how deeply ableism permeates our culture, we have for centuries allowed disabilities to be used as a cover for violent and racist acts. And by continuing to ignore the systemic problem of using police — instead of health professionals — to manage mental health emergencies, and by failing to train police to avoid ableism, we are failing to address a vital piece of the puzzle in changing how police in the United States interact with Black people.

Recognizing ableism is the only way we can ever ensure that black lives matter, or, as disability rights advocates remind us, that “nobody is disposable.”

Nick Winges-Yanez, Ph.D., LMSW is the coordinator of the Critical Disability Studies program at the Texas Center for Disability Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

Tags Americans with Disabilities Act Articles Disability Disability rights Mental disorder Social theories

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