suspects in chicago beating of disabled teen

4 Suspects Charged After Graphic Facebook Live Video Shows Disabled Teen's Attack

Four suspects in Chicago have been charged after a Facebook Live video streamed a graphic attack of a teen with cognitive disabilities, CNN reported.

The teen was tied up for four to five hours, according to Cmdr. Kevin Duffin of the Chicago Police Department, but is now back home recovering with his family. Jordan Hill, 18; Tesfaye Cooper; 18; Brittany Covington, 18; and Tanishia Covington, 24, have each been charged with a hate crime, felony aggravated kidnapping, aggravated unlawful restraint and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

Duffin says his department sought hate crime charges because of the young man’s “mental capacity”and due to the racial epithets heard on tape. At one point in the clip, a suspect can be heard saying, “F*ck Donald Trump! F*ck white people!”

For more on this story, head to CNN.

Statistically, people with disabilities are more likely to be violently victimized than people without disabilities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2014, “the rate of violent victimization against persons with disabilities (31.7 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older) was 2.5 times higher than the age-adjusted rate for persons without disabilities (12.5 per 1,000).” To add, “serious violent crime (rape or sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) accounted for a greater percentage of violence against persons with disabilities (41%) than violence against persons without disabilities (31%).”

In Illinois, a “hate crime” is not necessarily characterized as a crime driven by hate. As Eugene Volokh explains in The Washington Post, “if a thief selects a physically disabled victim simply because he thinks it’s less likely that the victim will fight back, that too is covered as a hate crime under Illinois law.”

Read Volokh’s breakdown of what qualifies as a hate crime here.


Hillary and sister, on a cruise.

5 Things I Wish Strangers Could See About My Daughter With Disabilities

There are many things about my adult daughter that I wish strangers could see. I wish people would look past her disabilities, past the wheelchair and see her as a young woman. She is a person with likes and dislikes, the same as everyone else. From the beginning of our life with disabilities journey, I have tried to help others see that she enjoys many activities in her own unique way. Here are five ways I wish people could see her.

1. Just because she can’t run, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy the feeling of moving fast.  She has always loved it when whoever is pushing her in her wheelchair runs. I remember the first time I observed her in a gym class with a peer helping her play T-ball. The memory of the joy on her face as they rounded the bases, her head tipped back and her ear to ear grin still brings me to tears. She loves the way it feels to move, whether she’s rocking, swinging while waving her hand in excitement, cooing while being pushed in her chair on a path at the park, or in our family van. I think most of the population enjoys the feeling of motion.

2. My mid 20’s daughter loves parties! Most everyone enjoys a gathering of their peers. In my daughter’s case, the louder it is the more she likes it. The sound of people talking and laughing, music, dancing, sparkling lights and the general festive air put a smile on her face.  Even just putting on her “party shoes” lights up her eyes. The young women I know feel happy when they put on their heels to go out. When it comes to party food she savors every bite of her favorites, cake and ice cream, raising her eyebrows in anticipation.  Sweets are the best part of the menu for many partygoers.

3. She doesn’t like getting out of bed early, especially on the weekend, looking up at me with one eye open while groaning and trying to snuggle deeper into the nest of her bed. Sleeping late and taking it easy are the reward for getting up on time every weekday and going to work or school or wherever people go during the week. Having a day or two to take it easy and recharge are as important to her as anyone. She doesn’t want to be woken up and expected to function, preferring instead to lie in bed listening to the radio for a while before having breakfast.

4. My daughter loves to be with her family. She is happiest when we are all home and together. She is Daddy’s little girl, even at the age of 24; she simply adores him and tilts her head to listen to his voice as she smiles a little smile. She feels sibling rivalry and scowls when she thinks her sister is getting more attention, yet loves hanging out with her while watching movies or listening to music, casting occasional glances at her with a contented expression. When she and I go someplace such as a concert or the mall together, she enjoys the one-on-one time just as most daughters enjoy that time with their mother, sitting up a little straighter and holding her head a little higher.

She has her favorite places to go, favorite movies, stories and TV programs. She laughs at funny programs and furrows her brow in annoyance when her show is interrupted. She also binge watches certain shows. Most people I know like doing those things.

5. She loves going places and seeing new sights. When we go out in the van or she is on the bus for her day program, she looks out the windows while excitedly waving her hand in the air in front of her. When we go on vacation, she likes taking in all the different sounds and smells, turning her face to the sun while taking a tour boat ride, and looking around the souvenir shops. Of course, while on vacation, eating at restaurants is a must and she likes doing that, too. She is not that happy about sleeping any place other than at home in her own bed, and spends restless nights groaning and sighing trying to get comfortable. A lot of people miss their own bed at home while staying in a hotel or at someone else’s house.

My daughter, although dependent upon us for her care, is a person in her own right, and I really wish more people could see that.

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Girl in a wheelchair at school.

To the Only Child in School Who Uses a Wheelchair

To the Only Child in School Who Uses a Wheelchair,

I hear you. I know exactly how you’re probably feeling right now. Maybe you’ve just started at a big school, or maybe you’ve been there for a while now, but you’re feeling like you’re the wrong-shaped jigsaw piece for the puzzle that is school, and you just don’t fit into the picture. You are not alone.

You may feel lonely, sad, isolated and upset. You may feel like you don’t belong. You may feel like you have no friends. Maybe there are some nasty children picking on you and you feel you have no one to back you up. My friend… I and many others have been there. We aren’t saying our situation is worse than yours, but we do understand. You are not alone.

You start the day in the classroom. You have to sit at the front near the door. Maybe the teacher wants you at the front of the classroom so they can see you, but really, you just want to be at the back where you feel no one can see you. The teacher takes the attendance, but you may be dreading having to say “Here, Miss,” as you feel like you’re drawing attention to yourself just by being present.

If you experience discomfort or pain, sometimes you fidget a lot which you feel other children notice. Maybe the other children around you draw attention to it, which hurts your feelings because you are just trying to get on with your work. Sometimes, the pain means you won’t be able to complete the work, and then you have to pass your work on to the child next to you for peer marking. They comment, just loud enough for the teacher and everyone else to hear, about how little work you’ve done.

Maybe now it’s time to move to your next lesson. This means having to leave the classroom and enter the corridors, which sometimes resemble pedestrians trying to cross a busy motorway. The hustle and bustle of students late for their lessons and frantically trying to make up for time is a daily occurrence. You sit lower than your peers… you can hear many a conversation taking place, but you often aren’t part of them. You’ve got people staring at you as if you’ve got three heads, people catching your face with their shoulder bags as they rush on ahead and silly groups of children running right into you.

Maybe it’s break time and you’re watching your peers play soccer. You wish you could join in. Maybe you used to be able to play but now, for whatever reason, you can’t. Or maybe you don’t even go out at break time as you’ll only feel excluded, so instead, you sit and catch up on work. You may feel as if everyone, including the adults around you, are against you or even punishing you. But they really aren’t.

Assembly time. This may be the only time you can sit at the back of the hall. Now, you can see just how many other children fidget, pick their nose when they think no one is looking, and sneak a phone into school.

Lunch time. You are sitting at a table with peers, or the teachers’ table, or perhaps, alone. After, instead of going out to play, you go back to your classroom or the Learning Support Center…  or maybe you do go into the playground but instead of having fun, you watch everyone else have fun… why aren’t you joining in?

Physical Education time… one of the biggest challenges you may face. Guess what? It’s either football, cross-country running or gymnastics. Maybe you can do some of the gymnastics with the help of a learning support assistant. That’s brilliant, you go for it. Or maybe, for whatever reason, you can’t. You watch everyone else climb up that rugged rope complaining that their hands are burning. You sit there wishing your hands would burn like theirs do, so you could get to the top to view the hall from their perspective.

Being different can really affect how you feel about yourself and others. It can make you think everyone is against you. It can make you feel like you’re a million miles away from reality.

But I have hope for you. You can get through this.

Maybe you have a very understanding learning support assistant like I did. Maybe they support you in all your lessons, or some of them. They might help you with work… maybe you get to leave the lessons earlier (yay!) to get to your next lesson on time. They might help you with your personal care as well. If you’re honest with them, they’ll likely do whatever they can to help you. If you feel your assistant doesn’t understand what you are going through or how you feel, speak to a teacher you trust.

Just remember, even though you feel alone, you really aren’t. I’ll tell you this as an adult… you will always remember your favorite teachers from each school you go to. Take that particular teacher whose lessons you genuinely look forward to. They’re fun, engaging and you learn something even when you feel like you can’t carry on with the day. You arrive at their classroom and they ask how your day is going. They’ve got everything ready for you, like positioning your adapted seat in exactly the right place for you. They’ve got the learning materials out already too, so now you don’t have to navigate through the swamp of school chairs in your path. They know exactly where you like to sit and why, but they don’t draw attention to it, because why would they need to?

They’re aware that you’ll fidget, move, make noise, and get really uncomfortable at some point during their lesson, but they don’t stop the whole class to tell you to be quiet because you’re supposedly disrupting things… instead, they continue and then later check to see if you’re OK. If you need time out for the bathroom, that’s fine. If you’re having a bad day, they genuinely seem to care and will let you know they’re there in whatever professional way they can be.

Sometimes, feeling that someone of authority genuinely cares about you as a student, while also positively pushing and reinforcing your self-confidence, can make a world of difference
to how you feel. This is the kind of teacher you want. The teacher who knows each individual child in their class, their strengths and weaknesses and individual needs. They genuinely want you to excel and do your very best, even with the 1001 challenges being thrown at you from all other angles of your life.

Maybe you could see if your parents can find a local sports club for you? I found wheelchair basketball at a very young age, then took up wheelchair tennis, went on numerous tours including some international competitions, and now I’m back at wheelchair basketball once again. Not only will you meet others in a similar situation as you, but you’re taking up a new skill. You get to try out amazingly cool wheelchairs with slanted wheels, and find out how to bounce a ball while wheeling along and improving your communication skills. You’ll make friends there too. And guess what? This is something that you could talk about with your peers at school. They’ve probably never heard of sports for disabled people.

If you feel like you’ve got no friends, try to find out what your peers enjoy as hobbies. Bring up your new hobby (whether it be a sport or something else) and that’ll soon get you talking. Hey, maybe if you choose a sport like wheelchair basketball or tennis, your club may be able to come to your school to provide your class with a whole new PE lesson. Then who is going to be the cool kid, eh? An experience like that will help your peers and your teachers to experience the challenges you face… which in turn will help them understand you more.

Talk to those around you. Try not to remain quiet… I know it can be difficult to talk if you’re uncomfortable but I encourage you to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It’ll be worth it. If you need help with this, your school may have a counseling service to help you.

Laugh… a lot.

School can be damn hard. It may feel like you’re in the middle of a battle you can’t win. I’ve not even covered half of the things you and I may have experienced at school, but I hope reading this letter shows you that you can do this. You can get through school even if you’re the only kid riding around on four wheels.

Prove all the doubters wrong… I believe you can do whatever you put your mind to. If you want to be a teacher when you’re older, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t because you’re in a wheelchair. If you want to be a scientist, go for it. If you want to go to university, work hard and you’ll get there.

I believe in you.

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Maria's kindergarten-age nephew.

How My Family Is Passing Along the Ideals of Disability Acceptance and Inclusion

You’re diseased!” This was the proud proclamation made by my smiling kindergarten-age nephew several years ago. I laughed at how proud he was of himself as his mom, flustered hastened to explain to him that he had used the wrong word. To this day, replaying that scene in my mind amuses me — and not just because I was an aunt hanging out with a cute little boy with dark blonde curls. As I talked later with my sister-in-law about his outburst, I felt a degree of pride in my family and satisfaction that my disability was useful — as I had always maintained.

My nephew started school in an urban school district that year eager, inquisitive and outgoing. Inside, he learned and participated and was a whiz at math. Outside, he spent his energy running and jumping on the playground and making friends. The adults thought he was sweet. His classmates thought he was cool. My nephew had it made.

He gravitated towards older kids; he always looked for them on the schoolyard or in the neighborhood park. One day on the yard, he saw an older child with an obvious disability. I can’t remember the nature of the disability, but the part that stays with me today is his reaction and his parents’ response to the opportunity presented.

All accounts describe him as taken aback when he saw the older child. He watched him from a distance, trying to process and understand what he saw. He noticed the differences in him compared to the other students he would usually gravitate towards. To his credit and his sweet nature, he did not disrespect him. He was, however, naturally curious. So he turned to the one person his 5-year-old mind felt had all the answers — his dad, my brother.

Despite having grown up with me and my comings and goings to the hospital or doctor’s office, my brother was surprisingly uninformed of the medical nature of my disability, or disability in general. As it turned out, that wasn’t the most salient point for my nephew. What appeased him was when my brother suggested the mystery boy might like soccer and video games like he did. He reminded his son that “Auntie Maria” looked different, spoke a little differently and had a hearing aid because she is disabled just as the boy was.  He pointed out that even though all these things about me were different, obvious and true, “Aunt Maria’s still pretty fun and cool, right?” So, he ventured, “The boy at school could be fun too; you just need to go up and talk to him like you would any of the other cool kids you play with.”

My nephew has always been one of few words but careful thought. He went back to school and watched that child some more. If he noticed that child, so did other classmates. He may have even witnessed other kids being mean to him. I do know he continued to go to my brother with his questions and allowed that to form his thinking and guide his actions. I don’t know what happened to that boy or if my nephew formed some level of friendship with him. However, after the moment where he mistakenly proclaimed I was “diseased,” with equal earnestness he declared, “I like you. You’re pretty.

My nephew is now in his 20’s and a college graduate. Thanks to his dad and mom, he has turned into a thoughtful and compassionate young man. I like to think his openness at that young age, and my brother’s freely shared perspective, has passed the ideals of acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities to the next generation. May my nephew’s perspective open doors and allow others with disabilities to know they are welcomed and valued.

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handicap sticker on windshield

Why I Refuse to Apologize for My Disability Anymore

The other day, a friend of my boyfriend’s caught a ride up to Whistler with us. We spent the four-hour drive getting acquainted and talking about all things active: skiing/snowboarding, marathons and triathlons. She especially had a lot of questions pertaining to fitness competition. So naturally, when we parked at a gas station and I pulled my handicapped placard from the glove box, she chuckled and asked, “Are we cheating?”

“No, it really is legitimate, I promise,” I assured her, in an apologetic tone. But despite giving her a condensed explanation of mitochondrial disease and all of its nuances, I found myself feeling a little self-conscious that she thought I shouldn’t be using the placard.

It occurred to me that I often use that same apologetic tone. For instance, if I need to access my G-tube while in public, I often ask permission so I don’t disturb some of the more squeamish folk who may be in my vicinity. I often excuse myself to the bathroom so people don’t have to see it, which is pretty unhygienic. (You don’t eat in a bathroom stall, right? That’s the equivalent of using my G-tube in the bathroom.) The other day, I apologized for not being able to make a previously planned social engagement and referred to myself as unreliable, even though it was through not fault of my own. I never considered how unfair I was being to myself until a friend recently pointed it out.

Above all, I especially feel contrite for being on disability. I felt embarrassed, as though I had failed society — that having to resort to disability was a reflection of my character rather than my body.

In the wake of my nasty divorce in 2014 and a car accident that June, my illness flared severely on account of the stress. In addition to my normal gastrointestinal difficulties, my neuropathy and dystonia worsened, I developed optic neuritis in my left eye, costochondritis, cognitive difficulties, and had widespread inflammation in my connective tissue. I had difficulty walking and had to use my cane. I also lost dexterity in my fingers, which is a proverbial nail in the coffin for a molecular biologist. I was a mess in every sense of the word, and it came to a point where I would put alcohol into my feeding tube to quell the deep depression, constant pain and general misery that encapsulated my life. I went through three jobs that year because I was too stubborn to admit that full-time work wasn’t realistic. I grew up hearing that SSDI is welfare and that most people on it are “lazy” and abusing the system. Those words reverberated in my head every time I thought about applying. It took becoming homeless to make me realize my reticence was slowly destroying me.

Initially, I didn’t want to tell anybody. What were people going to think? After all, I have a Facebook page dedicated to my life as an athlete. There are photos of me skydiving, swimming, doing gymnastics, snowboarding, etc. Shouldn’t a person who can perform such grueling physical activity be more than capable of holding a full-time job?


I would love nothing more than to work full time. I decided to make the switch from biotech to personal training because I genuinely love helping people feel good and achieve their fitness goals. I still hope the day when I can do so is in the near future. But currently, I am still in the hospital every six weeks on average and, unsurprisingly, many employers frown on their employees having to take a week off every month or two with no warning.

My illness tends to occur in distinct flares. I have plenty of good days. However, I have just as many bad ones. I just don’t talk about them as often as I used to, simply because I refuse to give my illness any more of my life than it already robs me of. Furthermore, even on my good days, I am not asymptomatic. I always have some amount of pain in my joints and my abdomen. I have to vent my stomach through my G-tube at least five times a day or the distention will impede my ability to breathe. It takes me quite a long time in the morning to get moving. Yes, I am an athlete, but few people have any idea how challenging that can be for me. I have to work five times harder than I normally would to achieve the same result. Many people don’t see the moments in my life that aren’t captured in selfie form. The hours spent in a fetal position in the bathroom in the middle of the night. The innumerable nights spent tossing and turning in pain. The crippling fatigue and weakness that sometimes makes the short walk to the bathroom a grueling feat. The inconsolable tears that soak the sheets of my hospital bed while the nurse strokes my hair and assures me I am not dying.

So I am not going to apologize anymore, nor should anyone else who feels compelled to do so by a society that feeds into the “But you don’t look sick” mindset. I know there will always be people out there who feel the need to criticize me based on my posts on Facebook, and they are free to do so. But I am free as well: free to be kinder to myself, free to refrain from having to explain myself when people question me, free to admit that sometimes I need a little extra help or rest — but most of all, I’m free to live my epic life in an unapologetic fashion.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Couple Cooks Up Plan to Help People With Disabilities Enter the Job Market

A couple opened a pizza parlor which provides steady employment for people with disabilities.

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