Content warning: This post contains discussions of physical abuse and sexual assault perpetrated by caregivers.
Last week, I read a horrific story in the Los Angeles Times about an employee of a retirement home who was sentenced to life in prison for torturing the residents. The story in the Times describes patients as ‘dementia ridden’ and ‘wheelchair bound,’ dehumanising them for readers and putting the focus squarely on friends and family. It’s not awful that this man kicked patients, punched them in the stomach, body slammed them, sexually assaulted them. It’s awful that he got caught and that their families know. The defense? That the accusations came from employees who ‘committed similar abuse themselves.’
This man was named ‘employee of the month.’ A medical examiner described the injuries to the body of one of his victims as like ‘being hit by a train.’
“Society is judged by how we care for people who can’t care for themselves,” Herscovitz said. “What could be worse than to have someone abused and not be able to communicate, to be trapped in their own body… and endure the abuse?” (source)
Again, the focus here is not on what happened to the victims, but what the abuse says about society and the perpetrator and the families of the victims. On the guilt experienced by family members who placed their loved ones in the facility. I see a parallel between the language used in these articles and the rhetoric from animal rights organisations like The Fund For Animals, which ‘speaks for those who can’t.’ It’s a pretty stark example of how people with disabilities are viewed by society.
This is not the only report of a ‘caregiver’ abusing people that has showed up in the news lately. In Santa Barbara, a man who sexually assaulted a disabled woman recently reached a plea bargain. Another graphic rape case from El Monte, California. In Des Moines, a disabled woman was raped by a ‘caregiver’ and her rape resulted in a pregnancy; the case would have gone undiscovered if it were not for that.
There is a consistent theme in the way that stories like this are reported. I wrote recently about how rapes of disabled women are framed as a crime against society, not the victim, and the same holds true for abuse. I get the impression, from the way that these articles are written, that the problem isn’t that human beings were tortured, sexually assaulted, and abused, but that ‘the helpless’ were subjected to cruelty and this reflects poorly on society.
It reflects poorly on society that we consider people with disabilities to be helpless. It reflects poorly on society that these narratives reinforce the idea that people with disabilities are incapable of protecting themselves and cannot report crimes committed against them, because this tells people who commit crimes like this that as long as they don’t get caught, they can act with impunity. The dehumanisation of these victims focuses on how awful it must be for their family members, how terrible it must be for them. Not on how awful it is to be a victim of violence.
Sometimes, I read stories where it seems to be implied that the victim doesn’t really understand, so the real source of heartbreak and tragedy is the knowledge of the family members. Never do these stories mention cases where people are not provided with the tools to communicate what is happening to them. Never do these stories talk about situations when people have reported abuse and have been ignored. Surely both of these things reflect poorly on society, don’t they? Why aren’t we talking about them?
These stories do not explore the structural problems involved. They do not talk, for example, about what it is like to be dependent financially and physically on someone who is abusive. On what it is like to know that reporting could end in retribution, institutionalisation, or even a return to the abusive caregiver. They don’t talk about the creation of enforced dependence, or why it is so hard to report abuse. Why it is that inmates of institutions can report abuse and nothing happens, but when their family members get involved, sometimes action is taken.
These stories are also presented in a way that suggests these cases are unusual. They are abhorrent, but they are not unusual. I wish that they were unusual, that caregivers who abuse were so extraordinary that such stories were blazoned across the major networks on the evening news. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Indeed, a quick perusal of Google News turned up a stack of cases from the last week documenting abuse perpetrated by caregivers. Some of these cases were so awful that I couldn’t bring myself to link to them, even with a warning.
People wonder why people with disabilities don’t universally trust caregivers, have concerns about institutionalisation, why sites like this one that centre the voices and experiences of people with disabilities exist. It’s because these kinds of cases are far from being uncommon, and because in most places, the myth that facilities that warehouse people with disabilities provide ‘care’ is alive and well.
As long as these stories keep being reported like they are unusual, as long as they keep dehumanising victims, the social attitudes that contribute to the abuse of people with disabilities will continue.