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Why We Can't Ignore the Link Between Disability and Mass Incarceration

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Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, refuses to stand up for the national anthem,
saying “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Whether you agree with his protest or not (and people have very strong views both ways), he has focused particularly on the epidemic of young black men who have been killed by police. But there is more to the story than the very important issue of race alone. Ableism is also a key factor.

As was demonstrated in a major report commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers, and make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. The media is ignoring the disability component of these stories, or, worse, is telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism. Given how the media has omitted the full facts, I doubt that Mr. Kaepernick or most of his fans, despite their good intentions, know this aspect of the story.

Rightfully, there is increased attention to how to stop these killings and in criminal justice reform overall. But if we look at race alone, we will not achieve the success that is needed. We need to look at the scourge of racism and training for police and other law enforcement professionals. But we also need to own up to the fact that jails and prisons have become substitutes for psychiatric hospitals, a dire human rights abuse. Moreover, a critical piece of the puzzle has been missing from the conversation: the nearly 750,000 people with disabilities, most of whom are of color, currently incarcerated as well as hundreds of thousands who will enter the system if things do not change significantly. We need to understand and address the harsh realities facing people with all kinds of disabilities who are behind bars.

As RespectAbility’s report, Disability & Criminal Justice Reform: Keys to Success, points out, 32
percent of people in prison and 40 percent in jail have at least one disability. More than 140,000 people in prison are blind or vision impaired, approximately the same number are deaf or have significant hearing loss and about 200,000 people have mobility issues. Fully 500,000 people who are
incarcerated have cognitive issues. One of the biggest challenges is executive function disorder, a very real disability where people generally cannot follow multi-step instructions. Frequently people make the mistake of thinking these individuals won’t comply with multi-step instructions, when the issue is that they can’t, until the instructions are broken down into smaller chunks or they have visual prompts about the steps. Both of these things can be easily done – but are often missed. Executive function disorder is often caused by lead in paint or water, something all too common in low-income neighborhoods.

The experiences of prisoners with physical disabilities, most of whom are people of color, show how unprepared the corrections system is to meet their basic human needs. For example, Joseph Heard, who is deaf, spent 22 months in prison after a judge dismissed charges against him and ordered his release, because no one communicated to him that he was free to go in an accessible manner. Raymond Fox developed permanent brain damage after being denied medication for his epilepsy. From a lack of training and accessible equipment to limited access to health care, our nation’s corrections system neglects people with disabilities.

In response, our report Disability & Criminal Justice Reform: Keys to Success, outlines steps to
integrate the disability lens into criminal justice reform. Overall, three critical stages must be addressed.

First, children with disabilities, especially those of color or who are new immigrants, need diagnoses, early interventions, resources, high expectations and work experiences. They face bullying, abuse or school suspensions and are among the most vulnerable when it comes to poverty, exploitation, victimization and violence. Only 61 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school, compared with 81 percent of those without disabilities – a 20-point gap. Addressing these issues can prevent these youngsters from joining the school to prison pipeline.

Second, we must address the challenges that people with disabilities face inside the system and prepare them for success upon release. They need adequate access to counsel, accommodations and supports. People with epilepsy who experience seizures should not be forced to sleep on the top bunk, which is a huge safety threat. People who need canes to walk should no longer be denied them for “safety” reasons. Deaf individuals should not be placed where no one else speaks American Sign Language, effectively silencing them. People who are hearing impaired or have other disabilities should not be forced into solitary confinement for their own “protection,” as that can lead to mental health issues.

We need to recognize and accommodate those with disabilities while ensuring access to literacy, including screen-reader technology for those who are vision-impaired. Many need to learn life skills. Not only should we respect the human rights of people with all abilities, but making these changes also will help reduce further crime when prisoners are released.

Third, more than 200,000 people with disabilities leave incarceration each year. We cannot continue to pretend that just releasing people from prison or jail is enough when recidivism rates remain high and the majority of returning citizens and residents lack the support needed to succeed. Families, government agencies, nonprofits, faith, community leaders and others need the training and capacity to improve release, reentry and reintegration. This includes access to stable housing, medications for mental and physical health and, above all, jobs.

The gap in labor force participation between people with and without disabilities is enormous, even for those without a criminal record, despite the fact that the majority of working-age people with disabilities want to work. As we approach Labor Day, we need to remember that only one-in-three working-age Americans with a disability has a job.

These issues are so vital that we have included them in RespectAbilty’s candidate questionnaires. Already Hillary Clinton and 16 candidates for Senate or Governor from both sides of the aisle have given us policy ideas on these issues. We are still waiting to hear from Mr. Trump and many candidates for Senate or Governor. You can help us by reaching out and asking them to complete the questionnaire.

Colin Kaepernick is right to focus on race – but it’s more than race alone. The discrimination and challenges faced by people with multiple minority statuses (i.e., disability + racial minority) requires national attention and resources. Without this critical piece of the puzzle, reforms will never truly succeed.


Originally published: September 7, 2016
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