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Harvey Weinstein's Sentence Proves Disability Doesn't Erase Accountability

On March 11, 2020, media mogul Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexually assaulting two women in New York. More than 80 women have implicated him in a string of violent sexual assaults stretching back decades, and evidence shows he tried to intimidate victims and witnesses into not cooperating with investigations into his crimes. When Weinstein appeared in court for his trial, he was suddenly using a walker and appeared physically frail — the result, his attorneys said, of recent back surgery.

Weinstein‘s walker created a media firestorm. Many commentators began speculating on whether he “really needs it” or is using it as a prop to gain sympathy from the judge and jury. Attempting to use disability (real or questionable) to garner pity is a common tactic, as we’ve seen in other recent, high-profile criminal cases. Bill Cosby’s attorneys also tried to use his blindness and other health issues as justification for a light sentence. The accused Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, appeared at his arraignment in a wheelchair after law enforcement witnessed him engaging in vigorous physical activities just the week before.

I’m not a doctor, and I haven’t seen medical records for any of these defendants. But here’s the part people are missing: their disabilities change absolutely nothing.

Disability is not an excuse to harm others. It shouldn’t make someone immune to the consequences of being a sexual predator, whether they were disabled at the time of their offenses or not. We need to move beyond the false assumption that someone who is physically weak cannot harm others. They can and they do.

We people with disabilities often point out that disability is the only minority group people can join at any time. In fact, anyone who lives long enough will become disabled, and that’s exactly what we are seeing here. Each of these predators committed their crimes with impunity for decades, but now they are finally being held accountable. Should we give them a free pass just because they have grown old by the time society and/or technology caught up to them? Of course not.

We also can’t forget that violent crimes often leave survivors with disabilities. While Weinstein and Cosby enjoyed wealth and power, their victims were blacklisted by Hollywood and still struggle with PTSD and depression. While Weinstein and Cosby aged, their victims aged too, and some now have physical disabilities of their own. And now the women they assaulted are re-traumatized by having to testify in court and being subjected to media coverage of the trials. Where is the sympathy for them?

Weinstein’s Hollywood often likes to depict people with disabilities as either supervillains or pure, angelic souls deserving of pity. In reality, we are humans like everyone else. We can do good things, and we can do bad things too.

In the real world, you can’t look at the man with the eye patch and the scar and say “Oh, that’s the bad guy,” because he probably isn’t. He’s probably your neighbor who works hard from 9 to 5, loves his grandkids, sometimes drinks a little too much and stole a stereo when he was 19 — a decent but imperfect person, like most of us. He could also be a war hero who got his scars saving a dozen men in his platoon, or the Zodiac Killer. Or all of these things.

People with disabilities are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators — in fact, 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. But that doesn’t mean perpetrators with disabilities should get a free pass, although sadly, they often do.

As a disabled person myself, I’ve never been under the illusion that people with disabilities were perfect, but I struggled for a long time to recognize that I was being psychologically and financially abused by a now-former partner, partly because she too has a disability. A few years after escaping that relationship, I was the victim of a home invasion robbery, and one of the perpetrators was deaf. I still struggle to understand why people with disabilities would target another person from our community, but I know now that it happens. Unfortunately my ex-partner was never held accountable for her actions, but the man who attacked me in my home is now serving a long prison sentence. And that is as it should be.

Both Weinstein’s and Cosby’s lawyers have cited poor conditions in the prison system as a reason why their clients should receive a light sentence. Their clients will not receive appropriate health care in prison, they argue. They are probably right. According to the New Yorker, more than half of states outsource prison health care to private companies, and the two largest private providers of prison health care have been sued about 1,500 times during the past five years for neglect, malpractice, wrongful injury and death. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmates in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as non-incarcerated people, and those in jails are four times as likely to have a disability.

This means hundreds of thousands of inmates with disabilities are currently receiving substandard health care, yet their stories rarely make the news — probably because they are mostly poor people of color who have been systematically disempowered for their entire lives. And many, it should be noted, are incarcerated for minor crimes arising from poverty, addiction and untreated mental illness. Now that wealthy perpetrators are starting to be held accountable for crimes that have devastated the lives of their victims, they are complaining about the horrors of a system that has existed for years.

Much as I detest Weinstein, Cosby and their ilk, I also believe every incarcerated person should receive quality health care and the equipment and services they need to manage their disability. But when we talk about reforming the criminal justice system, we must remember that although many people in jails and prisons don’t deserve to be there, some of them do. Some people hurt other people, and some of those predators happen to have disabilities.

Bottom line: people with disabilities can be assholes too, and struggling with your health isn’t an excuse to receive a lenient sentence. I don’t think it hurts the cause of disability equality to say that. If anything, it helps. We are not so different from anyone else. So the next time some rich, entitled dirtbag starts crying about how he shouldn’t go to prison for his crimes because he can barely walk or see or hear, don’t buy it. Justice for all should include everyone.

Image via Creative Commons/GabboT