In my work to develop Disability Informed Therapy, I’ve been looking at disability as a social phenomena. We need to understand that my physical experience of the world is different from those without disabilities, but that my social experience is equally different. These are not small differences, these are huge. Non disabled people, even those who ‘had to use a wheelchair when I broke my leg’ don’t have even the slightest idea. Understanding that disability is more than a physical manifestation of difference is only the beginning. It’s much, much, more than that.
So, I keep my eye out for studies that look at disability and the experience of disability that go far beyond ramps, accessible language and wider doors. So I came upon a study that stumbled upon the criminalization of disability. In this study they found that 43% of people with disabilities are likely to be arrested before they hit their thirties as compared to 30% of non disabled people. The rate jumps to 55% for black men with disabilities, the group most likely to face arrest, as compared with 28% of white men without disabilities.
I am not at all surprised by these numbers.
People with disabilities live in a different social world and face different dangers than do non disabled people. That’s one of the first things I realized when I became disabled. I found that I felt vulnerable all the damn time. That took some getting used to and it took time to develop the skills I needed in order to reduce the feeling of being a target. Further, I found that my voice no longer mattered in the same way it did before.
In my two experiences with police and security agents, one with a security guard at an airport and one with a police officer in Toronto, I realized that I couldn’t get my voice out of their perception of me as a person without significance. In both instances I feared for myself and my safety. My complaints were ‘dealt’ with but had no consequence.
Our challenge as adults with disabilities is to teach ourselves what we need to know, develop the skills we need to have, because no one is going to do it for us. Parents of children with disabilities need to drop the ‘just like everyone else’ mantra and recognize that their children have disabilities and therefore different social realities. Parents need to teach their kids about the community that they will face as disabled people, not the bright shiny welcoming community that we all want to believe in. There are dangers unique to disability, just like there are dangers unique to race, and gender, and religion. It’s neglect not to teach the skills that children with disabilities need.
There is a need for overwhelming social change.
The police who are called to the intersection of disability, race, gender, clearly see what they expect to see and hear what they expect to hear. Voices are dismissed or translated by expectation, visual perceptions of difference are coded into a combination of stereotype and prejudice. To quote from the abstract for this article: Police officers should understand how disabilities may affect compliance and other behaviors, and likewise how implicit bias and structural racism may affect reactions and actions of officers and the systems they work within in ways that create inequities.
It matters to meet that the author said ‘create inequities’ as it seems she is clear that when it comes to disabilities, even though we are all treated as if we are not quite really fully human, that that message is aimed at creating an inequity that doesn’t exist.
So if you can create inequity it stands to reason that you can create equity.
That’s our job.