In January 2013 a 26-year-old man by the name of Ethan Saylor was restrained by three Sheriff’s deputies in a Maryland movie theater after exiting and reentering to view the film “Zero Dark Thirty” a second time. An employee at the theater alerted police after seeing Ethan reenter the movie without paying. Unknown to all at the time, other than the caregiver accompanying him, was that Ethan had Downs syndrome. Through what was deemed uncooperative behavior and belligerence, the deputies reportedly restrained Ethan to the floor, handcuffing his hands behind his back, and through the struggle, caused Ethan to asphyxiate and die. The incident was later ruled a homicide but none of the officers involved faced a grand jury indictment and all three remain in the field today.
Unfortunately, these types of tragedies are commonplace, but often times disabilities are an afterthought for both onlookers and those intervening. Disability ethics and understanding are sorely lacking in today’s police forces. There is story after story of someone’s often invisible disability being interpreted as noncompliance. These can range from individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing being seen as ignoring requests and perceived as uncooperative, to cerebral palsy and muscular impairments that affect speech being seen as a state of inebriation and drunkenness.
Of the many police involved killings in America, people with disabilities are estimated to account for between a third and one half of victims. Unfortunately a lack of appropriate statistics has yet to be reliably collected by states, as a new study on media reporting on disability related deaths by the Ruderman Family Foundation explains ,”police departments may report voluntarily on killings, but before the passage of the 2014 Death in Custody Reporting Act there was no requirement to do so. Even now, it’s not clear the extent to which the act might help, as just knowing a death took place is less useful than being able to analyze cases.”
Law enforcement related violence is only one angle of the complex matter of misunderstanding proper interaction and conflict resolution when intervening during a crisis involving individuals with different types of disabilities. There is also the matter of widespread abuse and neglect suffered by those in institutions, a subject that has propelled the Independent Living movements’ emphasis on services being provided in less segregated and more community-based settings.
There is the infamous case of 13-year-old Jonathan Carey, a young boy with autism who was killed during aggressive restraint in the back of a van by his assigned caregiver while the driver turned a blind eye. The disaster became the subject of national media attention, following a surge of advocacy efforts spearheaded by Jonathan’s father Michael who successfully led passage of legislation that gave parents of individuals under state care access to previously restricted medical records. Before the passage of what is now known as Jonathan’s Law, families forfeited their access to their loved ones medical records in exchange for state-funded facility-based care operated under the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).
It was later uncovered that Edwin Tirado, the state employee who ended Jonathan’s life, had worked over 200 hours over 15 days without one day off . The van’s driver, Nadeen Mall was previously fired by four different providers of services for individuals with developmental disabilities. As a result of a consolidated state and federal lawsuit, Edwin Tirado was convicted of manslaughter and Nadeen Mall of criminally negligent homicide when it was revealed that the two drove around for an hour before seeking emergency medical assistance for Jonathan.
These and so many other instances are just a shaving off of the tip of the iceberg that is a catastrophic mishandling of how the most vulnerable in our society receive the healthcare services that they require from other human beings who are often uneducated, overworked, mistreated themselves, and ignored by those in positions of decision-making authority. An article published by The Atlantic, entitled “How Misunderstanding Disability Leads to Police Violence,” explains how “harmful attitudes and assumptions, once established, can be difficult to replace even in the face of evidence to the contrary.” The article also reveals that according to statistics by the US Department of Justice “Americans with disabilities are victims of violent crimes at nearly three times the rate of their peers without disabilities.”
Reading this you might ask yourself, what leads someone to such violent behavior, or in cases of neglect, why someone picks a job where they willfully ignore issues they are employed to address? There is certainly not one singular answer, and the solution must be overwhelmingly complex for us to still be where we are. But in order to hopefully curb society’s tendencies towards the dehumanization of others that they perceive as different or threatening, we need to be willing to take the time and examine behavioral barriers that have led us here.
That means coming together and having meetings between mental health departments and the community, alliances of caregivers and law enforcement officers, advocates for individuals with disabilities and lawmakers, all willing to accept realities as they are and work towards a solution no matter how multifaceted. We have the economy and its overwhelming burden on the family unit. We have difficult and debilitating illnesses with little to no known remedies. We have a rigid and difficult to customize education system. We have corruption and conflicts of interest that go unaddressed. We have a healthcare system geared towards profit and the rationing of actual on-the-ground, person to person care.
All the while, technology seems to be expanding at a rate equivalent to the rate of our declining personal and social connection to one another. How can we be expected to lend a warm and understanding hand to another human if we increasingly hide behind our cell phone and computer screens expecting lines of text to replace face-to-face interactions? The current status of unrest would seem to call for a reevaluation of our priorities at the local, state, and federal levels. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and acts of violence are no exception. If we wish to live in a world of true peace and equality it is vital we find a way to do everything we can to avoid the use of force as a means towards reconciling conflict.
“Sometimes disability is visibly apparent, making it easier for law enforcement, to see—if not misinterpret. For others, disability is invisible. Whether it is written in the genetic code and is a companion since birth, or becomes a part of one’s experience later because of age, accident, or public service during the course of our natural lifespan many of us will move in and out of states of disability” – The Atlantic (2014)