The Invisible Hate Crime
Hate crimes against people with disabilities are widespread and often involve extraordinary levels of sadism. The first step in combating these shameful incidents is an acknowledgment that they exist.
In February 2010, Jennifer Daugherty, a 30-year-old, mentally challenged woman from Greensburg, Pa., was brutally murdered by six people pretending to be her good friends. Holding her hostage for days, the perpetrators allegedly tortured Daugherty, shaving her head, binding her with Christmas decorations, beating her with a towel rack and vacuum cleaner, feeding her detergent, urine and various medications and then forcing her to write a suicide note, before stabbing her to death.
The sadistic attack on Daugherty was anything but unique. Still, few Americans are aware of the special vulnerability of people with emotional, intellectual and physical disabilities to extraordinary violence. Thinking of crimes inspired by hate or bias, most people conjure an image of a burning cross on the lawn of a black family, or swastikas scrawled on the walls of a synagogue. They may recall the name of James Byrd, the black American in Jasper, Texas, who was dragged for miles to his death behind a pickup truck by three white supremacists, or they might think of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was viciously beaten and then tied to a fence, left to die in the desert outside of Laramie, Wyo.
But the same Americans may have legal and emotional “tunnel vision,” not seeing a hate crime in the brutal murder of Jennifer Daugherty, even though she was apparently singled out only because of her intellectual deficit.
Thirty-two states have hate crime statutes to protect people who have disabilities, but 18 states still do not. At the end of October 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, bringing a uniform approach to the protection of hate crime victims that was not possible when matters were left to the states. The Shepard/Byrd legislation expanded federal hate crimes law to include offenses motivated by a victim’s disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, the new law eliminated a requirement that hate crime victims be engaged in a federally protected activity — for example, the right to live in the residence of your choice — to qualify for protection.
Still, attacks on people with disabilities are often overlooked because many people are not aware of the extreme vulnerability to maltreatment that accompanies such disorders as cerebral palsy, autism, multiple sclerosis, learning disabilities and mental illness — even though, according to anonymous victim accounts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the 54 million Americans with disabilities experience serious violence at a rate nearly twice that of the general population. Their risk of being a victim of sexual assault is at least four times higher than that of people without disabilities. In 2008 alone, Americans with disabilities were victims of about 47,000 rapes, 79,000 robberies, 114,000 aggravated assaults and 476,000 simple assaults. Adding to the trauma of victimization, people with disabilities are much less likely than able-bodied victims to seek medical treatment for their injuries, often choosing, instead, to suffer in silence.
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 bias against disabilities as a motivation for an assault. For the year 2009, just 97 or about 1 percent of the 7,789 hate crimes recognized by the police in FBI data reportedly targeted people with disabilities. (Of that total, 72 reports were designated as anti-mental disability crimes, and 25 were anti-physical disability crimes). This appears to represent a tremendous underestimate. When it surveyed nationally representative individuals anonymously about their experiences with crimes — even offenses not reported to the police — the Department of Justice determined that more than 11 percent of all hate crimes targeted people with disabilities. In other words, by asking victims rather than the police, the Justice Department found the number of disablist attacks numbered in the thousands.
And that’s not to mention another problem: Hate offenses are underreported, generally.
The FBI hate crime count is based on a voluntary reporting system that many local police jurisdictions refuse to support. In 2009, for example, only nine hate crimes were reported for the entire state of Alabama, which would reflect just one such crime per 523,190 citizens, according to Census Bureau population estimates. By contrast, other states have typically reported a much higher rate of hate crimes — for example, Massachusetts reported 322 in 2009, a rate of one for every 20,476 citizens, and New Jersey had 549 reported hate crimes, reflecting a 1-in-16,000 rate. It is hard to imagine such a huge divergence in rates arising out of anything but different reporting standards — and, perhaps, different levels of enthusiasm for reporting hate crimes at all.
Hate crimes are also underreported because motivation is a central element, and motives are often difficult to prove. The perpetrators might not have used a slur or written hate graffiti on a wall or sidewalk; they might never have confided their intent to the police or an acquaintance.
(Source: Crime Victimization Survey, U.S. Department of Justice)
In July 2006, for example, Steven Hoskin, a 39-year-old man with severe learning difficulties who lived in a small English village, was violently tortured for hours in July 2006 by five people — three young adults and two teenagers — before he was forced to take dozens of painkillers and then pushed from a viaduct to his death. Pretending to be Hoskin’s friends for several months before the fatal incident occurred, the five young perpetrators bullied their victim into submission on a number of occasions. The victim became convinced that he was being included as a member of a “gang” and was willing to endure pain and suffering to remain in good standing with his “good friends.” The torture and murder of Steven Hoskin had no economic motive. The crime would have been impossible if Hoskin had had normal intellect. But proving that the attack was motivated by the victim’s disability is not easy to do.
For many reasons, victims are themselves underreporters of hate offenses. Based on a history of animosity, black and Latino victims may see law enforcement as an “army of occupation”; immigrants may identify the police with a tyrannical regime in their home country or be concerned about being deported; gays and lesbians may perceive, rightly or not, that police officers are generally homophobic.
But violence against people with disabilities differs in important ways from other hate crimes, making attacks even less likely to be reported or acknowledged. Unlike racially and religiously motivated offenses, attacks against people with disabilities tend to be committed not by strangers but, more often, by family members, neighbors, employees and friends who may also be caregivers.
In January 1999, eight men and women tortured a 23-year-old man with learning disabilities who worked as a cook at a fast-food restaurant in Tinton Falls, N.J. Apparently imitating the horror movie Scream, which they had recently viewed, the group persuaded the victim to attend a “party” and, when he arrived, tormented him for almost three hours. They stripped their victim to his underwear, slapped and kicked him and taped him to a chair that they dragged around the room. One perpetrator attempted to shave the victim’s eyebrows and head with a razor; another completed the job with electric hair clippers. Members of the group then whipped him with rope knotted with a series of plastic beads, so his naked back, face and chest were covered by a network of cuts and bruises.
Cutting their victim out of the chair, they forced him to wear a bra and a woman’s suit and dragged him into a van, driving him into the woods. Upon reaching a desolate area, they repeatedly punched him and slammed him to the ground. Finally, the victim was able to escape. He staggered to a nearby property, where he convinced a security guard to summon the police, who drove him to a local hospital where he was treated and released.
The victim wanted desperately to be accepted by his tormentors. Two weeks earlier, he had attended a party with the same perpetrators, who abused him and held him hostage for the evening. But he didn’t file charges at the time and instead was willing to attend a second party with the same group a couple of weeks later. Even after charges of kidnapping and aggravated charges were brought against his tormentors, the victim didn’t seem to appreciate the brutality of the attack, telling reporters that he “just wanted to make friends with these people.”
Victims with disabilities are often extremely reluctant to report attacks out of fear that their tormentors will retaliate. They may have psychiatric or intellectual deficits that seriously interfere with their capacity to recognize false friendships or to report crime. Or they may assume a position of dependence in a relationship with caretakers who conceal their sadistic urges in the high credibility of their institutional roles. In October 2008, for example, five staff members in a Louisiana psychiatric facility were arrested for allegedly battering their patients with hand weights and inserting bleach into their open wounds. The victimized patients had complained bitterly but were perceived to be out of touch with reality and undeserving of being taken seriously.
Ignoring such hate offenses is particularly unfortunate because the level of sadism and brutality is frequently greater than in their racial and religious counterparts, and their perpetrators often engage in the sort of overkill not usually found in attacks based on other kinds of bias.
Slurs used by offenders represent the most widely employed evidence for establishing the commission of a hate attack. Racial and religious epithets are widely recognized, even by those individuals who themselves would never use them and are repulsed by those who do. The nasty labels placed on people with disabilities are just as hurtful as their racial and religious counterparts but are not recognized to the same extent. People with disabilities have been referred to as invalids (i.e., not valid persons), handicapped (capable only of begging, cap in hand) or disabled (incompetent). Other hurtful labels include crippled, deformed, feeble-minded, idiot, moron, imbecile, insane, lunatic and maniac. Often, people who wouldn’t dream of using the N-word feel free to refer to an intellectually challenged individual as a “retard.”
As a cultural phenomenon, racist preferences apparently find inspiration early in life, as children begin to develop the biases that they have learned from dinner table conversations, family members, friends and television programs. In an early study by social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, preschool children were asked to choose either a black or a white doll to play with. The majority of both white and black children preferred to play with the white doll, indicating the early impact of racial subordination and segregation on the psyche of countless minority youngsters. Testimony about the Clark and Clark study was given in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated the desegregation of America’s schools.
Negative perceptions of disability are also, it seems, formed very early in life. Most children aged 3 to 6 are already aware of physical disabilities and have already attributed negative characteristics to those who are not physically able-bodied. Writing in the journal Mental Retardation, researcher Laura Nabors notes that when able-bodied preschool children were shown pictures of persons with and without disabilities, the preschoolers showed a marked preference for able-bodied playmates and an aversion to their physically challenged counterparts. Children are more likely to learn about psychiatric and intellectual deficits later, when their cognitive abilities have developed enough to think of people who are developmentally different in unflattering terms.
Over time, what began as an aversion may easily be transformed into outright prejudice and hate. From the viewpoint of a perpetrator, the members of an out-group — defined by their physical or developmental differences — may represent a threat to his or her economic well-being, to cultural or religious values, to neighborhood composition, to educational opportunities and even to physical survival. What we might view as a hate crime is therefore often regarded by a perpetrator as self-defense. Hate attacks, therefore, usually occur after some precipitating event — a gay rights rally, the first Latino in a college dormitory, a developmentally delayed student mainstreamed into a regular classroom — that is seen as calling for a “last resort” response.
As with members of racial and religious groups, individuals with disabilities have often been the victims of such “defensive” hate crimes. A couple in suburban Chicago, both of whom were 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 had they received support and encouragement from neighbors and the police; they did not.
Many hate crimes are committed by groups of young people — teenagers or young adults — who, bored and idle, are looking for a little excitement at someone else’s expense. Such thrill hate attacks bring few practical gains to their perpetrators. Instead, they get an intangible benefit: bragging rights with friends who think that hate and violence are pretty cool. Thrill crimes are usually directed by a sadistic leader who has tremendous influence over a group of friends who may not be hate-filled but are all too eager to be accepted.
In May 2010, a 19-year-old high school student with a developmental disability was brutally attacked on a busy Boston street, in broad daylight, by a group of nine young people, ages 15 to 21. The bloodied victim, who later described himself to police as “slow and challenged,” screamed and pleaded for help, then curled up on the ground, as the perpetrators repeatedly kicked, beat and choked him. The victim later told police that “the kids up the street had jumped him.” He had known his assailants from the Dorchester Youth Collaborative — an agency for high-risk teenagers — and they did not like him. But the youthful perpetrators used their shared animosity as a bonding exercise. The more they shared in bashing their victim, the more cohesive their friendships became.
Some of the most dangerous hate crimes have a retaliatory motive, encouraging “tit for tat” in an exchange of violence. When the motive is retaliatory, an original attack by the members of one group is met by a retaliatory attack, often on a random basis, by the members of the victim’s group. In other words, the victim becomes the villain.
On Jan. 19, 2007, John Odgren stabbed to death his 15-year-old schoolmate — a random victim — in a restroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts. The 16-year-old killer had been diagnosed, early on, with major depression, Asperger’s Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Because of his disabilities, Odgren had a long history of having been bullied and having sought to retaliate violently. In third grade, he threatened to shoot some girls who had harassed him. In fourth grade, he jabbed a pencil into another student’s chest. He was bullied repeatedly as he bounced from school to school and finally got even with his mainstreamed peers by killing an innocent victim. For taking the life of his schoolmate, Odgren was tried, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole eligibility.
It is important to acknowledge that some organized hate groups overtly display their hostility to disabled people in a manner that encourages nonmembers to become violent. In early November 2002, for example, the white supremacist group Stormfront allocated a section of its Web discussion forum to eugenics. Among the comments presented online was the following: “We must put into place social and economic systems that encourage the best genes to dominate in numbers as well as power.”
But only a very small minority of hate crimes — perhaps 5 percent — directly involve organized hate groups. Disability hate crimes are no different in this respect.
Victims of disablist violence learn to respond in any of a number of ways to the maltreatment they are forced to endure in their day-to-day lives. In the face of widespread bias, some people with disabilities come to accept the nasty stereotypes being communicated widely about them and suffer a profound loss of self-esteem. They may see themselves as inferior, incompetent, totally disabled. Rather than regard their disability as only one of many characteristics they possess, they may instead come to define themselves totally by their most serious disadvantage and give up the struggle for self-improvement, sinking deeply into depression, drug abuse or alcoholism.
Other people with disabilities refuse to accept the nasty stereotypes that invade their lives, instead seeking to avoid the nastiest implications of their maltreatment by segregating themselves in terms of friendship, employment and dating. Rather than give up, they attempt to insulate themselves from the insulting behavior of the able-bodied.
Still others seek collectively to change the maltreatment they have suffered because of their disabilities. Since the 1970s, members of the disability rights movement have instituted boycotts, blocked traffic and engaged in a variety of protests, marches and sit-ins. Closely mirroring the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s, organized efforts have aided in the passage of disability-rights laws and the blockage of policies that would have been hurtful to people with disabilities. In the last couple of years, hundreds of people in wheelchairs have demonstrated on the streets of Atlanta, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Nashville. In August 2008, the Special Olympics and 21 other disability groups called for a nationwide boycott of the Ben Stiller-directed film Tropic Thunder because of what the organizations considered a “negative portrayal” of the developmentally disabled.
Such collective efforts are important as models for what the victims of hate violence might be able to achieve in the future. For now, however, such demonstrations are typically designed to reduce employment discrimination or to discourage cuts in government budgets. The hate crime response has not yet occurred.
We don’t have to change the law on hate crimes against people with disabilities — that has already happened — but we must change the thinking of ordinary people who consider only race, religion or sexual orientation as grounds for bigotry. Many people with disabilities are harmed more by the way others treat them than by their intellectual, psychiatric or physical disadvantages. This unfortunate fact has been widely ignored by otherwise decent Americans, who, when they think of hate crimes, tend to focus on people wearing sheets, armbands, steel-toe boots or Nazi tattoos. It is easy to forget that hate begins in the silence of ordinary people.