How We Can Stop Police Violence Against People With Disabilities

During a summer full of too many black men being killed by police officers, a deaf man was gunned down in North Carolina when he failed to pulled over for a routine traffic violation. A quick search on Google uncovers several examples of deaf men being shot or beaten by police simply because they didn’t react the way they were expected to… because the victims could not hear what was going on. This comes weeks after a teenage girl was beaten and bloodied at the Chattanooga Airport by TSA staff when, due to her disability and being forcefully separated from her mom, she failed to follow directions “appropriately.”

I have spent a large portion of this summer thinking about the similarities between being black in what is quickly proving itself to be a systematically racist society, and being disabled. I know what it’s like to be in really dangerous situations and have everybody refuse to listen to me just because I am a woman in a wheelchair. I’ve had to get out my camera or call on CCTV footage at airports because of staff behaving inappropriately towards me and other passengers with disabilities.  In 2009 and again in 2011, I was assaulted by members of staff of Transport for London. The first time I sued; the second time, he was fired.

This is what life is like for someone living with a disability in 2016, in the U.K. and America. It seems like it’s just a matter of time before I get hurt. I don’t say that with self-pity. I say it as a fact. Even when the “law” is supposedly on your side, it just takes one person who, out of ignorance or arrogance, decides to act counter to what the law says, to cause some serious damage.

Now just to be clear: I’m not black. I grew up very privileged in a lot of ways. Entire communities aren’t taught from a young age to hate disabled people as they are taught that about different races.
But society tends to send a message that disabled people should “stay in their place,” whether it be a care home, special ed classes, or aspiring to be Paralympic athletes. It’s expected that you’ll have someone without a disability there to advocate for you, and then you won’t risk being shot by a cop because you can’t hear the sirens. You can be disabled, even thrive, as long as you don’t get in everybody else’s way.

Where I think racism and ableism connect is this: Both discount your voice as having any validity simply because of who you are.

I’ve been in situations where it doesn’t matter what laws I quote, or how elegant my argument for equal access is, they won’t listen simply because of who I am. And yes, I know it happens if you’re a woman or from any other facet of society where you are considered “the other.” However, with the advent of disabled people being more mobile, with technology allowing us to be more independent, and with a generation of us coming of age who know we are protected by law from discrimination, I fear acts of violence against those of us with disabilities will only become more common.

The pressure should never be on me to prove my inherent worth as an individual just because I was born with a disability. Nobody should have to worry about being gunned down by police, or attacked by security staff, just because there was a “misunderstanding.” This shows a sick system, miles away from the idealism we fought for in the past, a throwback to the divine right of kings where who I am determines if I have value or not. Better diversity training isn’t enough. After having lived with a number of police officers over my life I can tell you, cops get training. We need more than that.

We need to foster a society that meets people with fresh eyes every day, not give them a list of expectations to check off and behave according to prescription. We need people who are alive to the fact that everyone is different, and who are willing to face that challenge rather than their eyes glazing over with “well, I don’t see race / gender  / disability / whatever, I treat everyone the same.” Above all, we need people who can take responsibility for what they do, and understand that when people don’t respond to their expectations, they should look at whether their most basic assumptions may be wrong, rather than going straight to violence.

A status update of a friend on Facebook the other day said “I can’t keep calm. I have a black son.” Well, I could very easily keep calm. I could allow the world to very easily wrap me in a bubble of security and care. But I refuse to live within the expectations others have for me, because I want more for my life. Moreover, I am entitled to it. And that, it seems, is where the trouble starts.

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