Magazine article The Progressive

Bashing the Disabled: The New Hate Crime

Magazine article The Progressive

Bashing the Disabled: The New Hate Crime

Article excerpt

Move, blind lady," a man hissed at me as he twisted my arm and grabbed my cane. He threw my cane down the escalator, which was taking me to the subway in Washington, D.C. He spat on me and growled, "You people belong in concentration camps."

I knew that some people dislike those of us with disabilities, but before this encounter at the subway, I had no idea that this hostility could take the form of such rabid hatred. I had heard about neo-Nazi skinheads from news reports, usually from some place in Europe. But as I wiped the spit from my arm and groped for my cane, I saw what I hadn't seen before: hate crimes can happen here - in a respectable, middle-class neighborhood in the United States.

If my story were unique, it could be shrugged off as an isolated incident of disability-bashing. But disability advocates across the country say this isn't the case.

"Today in America, there's a frightening backlash against not only disabled people, but minorities, women, gays, and all those whose civil rights need protection," asserts Justin Dart Jr., a former chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

A recent column by Paul Hollander that appeared in The Wall Street Journal entitled, WE ARE ALL (SNIFFLE, SNIFFLE) VICTIMS Now, conveys the spirit of this backlash. Hollander writes, "If we add them all up - women, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, the disabled, homosexuals, AIDS victims, the homeless, the children of abusive parents, the overweight, etc. - it would emerge that not more than 15 percent of the population of the U.S. is free of the injuries of victimhood."

What's fueling the backlash against the disabled? Resentment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed by President George Bush in 1990, say disability-community leaders.

"We shouldn't be surprised by the backlash," says Marca Bristo, chair of the National Council on Disability. "It happens in our society whenever a constituency fights for its civil rights. The ADA gave us our rights; we can't be turned away from jobs or public accommodations because of our disability. So now we're feeling the effects of this not-unexpected backlash."

One manifestation of this backlash is hate crimes against the disabled, says Dart, who has polio. "We've become a scapegoat," he says. "Some people who don't wish to hear about our country's economic or social problems - who want to ignore civil-rights issues - blame disabled people for these problems. Sometimes that gets acted out in hateful rhetoric or hate crimes." Dart adds that disability activists even "made the list of groups that the Unabomber says he disapproves of."

Hostility against the disabled is increasingly common even in public, says Jean Parker, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition.

Parker, who is blind, knows this firsthand. One day, she was standing with her guide dog at a bus stop in Denver. As they were waiting for the bus, she says, "Someone silently approached and deliberately kicked my guide dog in the kidneys. I have no vision; because the person who hurt my dog didn't speak, I couldn't tell if the attacker was a man or woman.

"This was a hate crime. The perpetrator didn't assault or rob me. It was clear that my dog was a guide dog used to assist someone who is blind. This crime was motivated by hatred of blindness and of disability. A man was present who saw my dog being kicked. I tried to get him to give the police a description of the perpetrator, but he declined; he was afraid of retribution."

This fear is one of the reasons why hate crimes are underreported, says Veronica Robertson, who represents the disability community on the Illinois Hate Crimes Task Force. "People are afraid to tell anybody that they've been the victim of a hate crime because they're scared that the perpetrator will go after them again."

Robertson, a staff member of the Chicago-based advocacy group Access on Living, tells how a hate crime has devastated the life of one disabled person. …

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