Category Archives: violence

Disability and Domestic Violence Apologism

Content note: This post discusses a domestic violence case involving a woman with disabilities, and includes details on domestic violence apologism as well as threats made in the court room.

Disability and domestic violence are intersecting issues with very serious consequences. People with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic violence and we are also less likely to receive assistance. We may be afraid of reporting, we may not be believed when we do report, and when our cases do go to court, sometimes the attorneys supposedly prosecuting our abusers engage in domestic violence apologism.

A recent court case in England is a classic example of what often plays out when people with disabilities are abused and report it. Two pensioners were married for 37 years. In 2003, the wife[1. The news story names the individuals involved in this case, but I prefer not to.] experienced a stroke. Seven years later, her husband started abusing her, because he apparently decided that her disability was an ‘act.’

On May 9 at about 11am [she] was sitting at the lounge table doing some paperwork. Earlier she had put some logs on a woodburner. He came in and said was she trying to burn the house down and then hit her around the head three or four times. She grabbed the phone to call the police but he took it off her and threw it in the fire. She then left the house and tried to get in her car but he took the keys.

‘She got in anyway and locked herself inside. He then drove his car in front of hers to block it, not that she could get anywhere as she didn’t have any keys. She called the day centre and her daughter for help. After about half an hour her daughter and son arrived.’

The next day, she reported her abuse to social services, and it ended up in court. Here’s what the defense said about the husband’s actions:

‘He couldn’t get any help with her because where they live is so remote so they were stuck together and the frustrations built.’

This type of apologism comes up a lot. ‘She made me do it’ is a classic excuse used for domestic violence regardless of disability status, and with disability in particular, it’s very popular, evidently, to make claims that it was the disability that drove the abuser into becoming abusive. This naturally legitimises abuse, because while people condemn it on the surface, they secretly think things like ‘well, he was under lots of pressure’ or ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a caregiver’ or ‘it must be so hard to have no help.’ Caregiver abuse becomes acceptable because, well, disability is just such a burden and it’s so hard and they didn’t get the services they needed.

Caregiver abuse doesn’t stop with cases like the one above. There have been a number of cases this year alone where caregivers have killed people and it’s reported in the media as a tragedy for the caregiver. Courts tend to return more lenient verdicts to abusers and murderers when disability is involved, because of ‘unusual circumstances.’ And people wonder why some people with disabilities are concerned about caregiver abuse. When abuse of people with disabilities is painted as something sad or hard for their families to deal with, instead of abuse of human beings, when caregivers are given lenient sentences because ‘the disability drove them to it,’ it normalises caregiver abuse.

It’s bad enough that the defense and, apparently, the court in this case thought that the husband was somehow justified in behaving abusively towards his wife because she was disabled. The prosecutor also had to join in:

That day when he told her off about the fire, she gave him cheek so he slapped her.

Where have I heard this before? Oh, only in every single reported case of domestic violence ever. Was it really necessary for the prosecutor to hop on the victim-blaming bandwagon too? When the media and defense attorneys constantly parrot lines like this, it reinforces the idea that some people just deserve domestic violence, and when the prosecution joins in, it, well, it makes me really angry.

Because, guess what? No one deserves domestic violence. No matter how much cheek or lip or sass or anything else is involved. No person deserves to be hit. No person deserves to be deprived of mobility. No person deserves to sit in court while the attorney supposedly acting in her interests suggests that, well, she kinda deserved it.

Oh, but this case gets worse.

The 68-year-old was ordered to pay £150 compensation to [her] but he told the court that, as they had a joint account, he would hand it over to her and she would simply put it back in the bank.

Economic abuse is extremely common in domestic violence situations, especially when they involve people with disabilities. The fact that this man openly admitted in court to the fact that he would do this shows me exactly how much contempt he had for the court, the law, and his own wife. And the fact that the court didn’t sit up and take notice is a sad but not surprising reminder of how often people turn their heads in the other direction in the face of domestic violence and abuse.

The victim has been relocated and, from what I understand from the article, is living independently with an aide. That’s the one bright spot here: Too often in cases like this, the victim is forced to return to the abuser.

Investigating Disability Hate Crimes in the United Kingdom

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently announced that it is conducting an inquiry into disability hate crimes, on the basis of research demonstrating that people with disabilities are much more likely to experience hate crimes than nondisabled people. There have been several high profile cases of bullying and abuse leading to deaths in the UK that have attracted public attention in recent years; I see a lot of articles citing the Fiona Pilkington case, where a woman killed herself and her daughter after prolonged inaction on clearly documented abuse.

According to a report  issued by the EHRC (I can only find a .pdf version, unfortunately), disabled persons in Britain are four times more likely to experience violence than other people, and the likelihood of experiencing violence goes up for people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Almost half of the people involved in the study reported experiences of abuse. In a statement on the report, the EHRC says:

It is not the disabled person who creates their own oppression. It is others. As Sir Ken Macdonald so eloquently argued in one of his final speeches as Director of Public Prosecutions, we must overcome a prevailing assumption that it is disabled people’s intrinsic vulnerability which explains the risk they face – an assumption unsupported by evidence. At best, this had led to protectionism, constraining rather than expanding the individual freedom and opportunity which greater safety and security should provide. Only by extending the same expectations of safety and security to disabled people as to everyone else can we truly come to address the deficits in our current approach and wake up to the need to act. (source)

The new inquiry is designed to gather more information about harassment and abuse experienced by people with disabilities and what kind of support is being provided when people report it. Poor statistics are maintained on disability hate crimes and the EHRC is also concerned that a lot of abuse is going unreported. There are significant complications when it comes to reporting abuse; what do you do, for example, when your abuser is your caregiver? What do you do when you are not provided with tools for reporting? What do you do when you don’t recognise what is happening as abuse because you haven’t been given information about the dynamics of abuse and harassment and it’s all you’ve ever known? What do you do when the people you are told to report to choose to ignore your reports or claim that there is nothing they can do?

I’m hoping that it will lead to some recommendations designed to combat harassment and abuse, and subsequent action on those recommendations. It’s easy to make statements and write reports about what should be done, but it’s harder to put these things into action. Full integration into society requires being treated like we belong there, and thus far, performance on the part of public servants who are supposed to be ensuring our safety and security has been unimpressive:

Smith [lead commissioner for the inquiry], a wheelchair user, has himself suffered abuse – with “Kripple” daubed over his walls in paint and wooden wedges hammered under his door to prevent it from being opened. “I did call the police, and the first five times it was like, ‘What do you want us to do about it?'” But I did finally get one officer prepared to do something about it and installed a surveillance system. It shows what can happen if the collective denial is challenged.”

Disabled people, says Smith, can literally become “too scared to leave home” because they are “harassed and told to ignore it by everyone else, including public bodies. It’s unacceptable”. (source, emphasis mine)

Smith’s story mirrors the Pilkington case: Repeated reports were made to law enforcement, and nothing was done. Until harassment, sexual assault, abuse, and violence against people with disabilities are treated like the serious crimes that they are, they are going to persist, and they are probably going to grow worse. This requires a fundamental rethinking of the way that disability hate crimes are handled. It requires better training for law enforcement, teachers, social workers, and other people on the front lines who are in a position to intervene.

It requires believing that people with disabilities are human beings.

“Bullying and harassment can all too often escalate into serious hate crimes against disabled people that we have all heard about.

“Harassment in any form is totally unacceptable. Everyone in society has the right to live life in safety and with security.

“For disabled people and for those people with long-term health conditions, safety and security is a right that can’t be taken for granted.” (source)

There is a fundamental lack of recognition in many regions of the world that hate crimes are a problem not just because they involve abuse of individuals, but because they are a reflection of social attitudes. Certain populations are viewed as acceptable targets for abuse by harassers, rapists, bullies, molesters because society has made its indifference to the safety, health, and wellbeing of these populations clear. Inquiries like the one planned by the EHRC are important, and will gather valuable information about patterns of abuse and harassment in the disabled community. They need to be backed up with a genuine movement towards change, a reform of social attitudes, a confrontation of the way that the actions and beliefs of society as a whole contribute to systemic oppression.

On Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter: It’s not ok for police to immobilise PWD for questioning

This post is not spoily for the Dexter TV series to date, except perhaps for the premise. It contains a very minor spoiler for an event that occurs at the start of Dexter By Design. Comments may contain spoilers up to the Chapter Ten of Dexter by Design, but no further please..

At the moment I’m reading Dexter by Design (2009), by Jeff Lindsay. It is the fourth book in the Dexter series, a thriller/crime series with a touch of spec fic, set in current-day Miami. Dexter Morgan and his foster sister Deb are both police officers working in homicide; Dexter a blood-spatter expert and Deb a sergeant. Dexter is also a serial killer, brought up by his police officer foster dad to follow “The Code”, to only kill murderers who have escaped justice, and to not get caught.

Last night I read the scene below, and it hit all my rage buttons. Coming on the heels of the Ayr incident where a police officer stolen a woman’s mobility scooter, and the episode in Colorado where a teacher duct taped a disabled 12-year-old’s only communicative hand to his wheelchair, it was all too much.

The scene is excerpted below the cut. Additional warning for lots of taboo language; NSFW.

Continue reading On Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter: It’s not ok for police to immobilise PWD for questioning

Who Is The Victim Here?

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.

Where About Us But Without Us Leads

On 1 June 2010, E. Fuller Torrey MD wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times, “Make Kendra’s Law Permanent.” Dr Torrey is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a nonprofit group whose sole purpose is to lobby states for the passage of so-called assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) laws like Kendra’s Law in New York and Laura’s Law in California. The New York law is named after Kendra Webdale, who was killed by Andrew Goldstein in 1999.

Dr Torrey and TAC will tell you Mr Goldstein had untreated schizophrenia. They’ll tell you people like him are dangerous, they’ll tell you people like Mr Goldstein are often so sick they don’t understand they’re ill and need treatment, and they’ll tell you they know best. They won’t tell you that Mr Goldstein had been seeking treatment desperately and been turned away repeatedly.[1. Source: Time Magazine, “Will the Real Andrew Goldstein Take the Stand?”] Continue reading Where About Us But Without Us Leads

Carer hits PWD on the head in public; World points and laughs

No, it is not fucking ok for carers to hit people with disabilities on the head when they don’t do as they’re told. NOT. OK.

Why does this need saying?

At a football game at Saltergate, groups of Chesterfield fans “invaded” the pitch joyfully as their team defeated Bournemouth.

The Sun described the scene thus:

Supporters dodged stewards to pay their parting tribute to the League Two side before they move next season to a new ground in the town. Among them was a man on crutches and the young man wearing a baseball cap and dressed in the club’s blue and white colours in his wheelchair furiously pushing his wheels and speeding across the pitch.

Moments later an older man dashes on to the pitch and grabs the wheelchair and pushes it back to the stands. And as the youngster is shoved back across the pitch the older man gives him a playful clip across the head.

A spokesman for Chesterfield said: “It was a good natured pitch invasion resulted after the goal. To everyone’s amusement one youngster in a wheelchair got twenty yards on before being rushed off by an embarrassed helper.”

[WARNING for video footage]

This footage has been called “heart-warming” and “comical”, “legendary“, “hilarious” and “brilliant”, “touching” and “a joy”, “fantastic” and “priceless“.

One forum user said “The clip round the ear after is the best bit.”, another “The clip round the ear, pissed myself.”; another said “The slap on the head is great”.

I just want to cry. This footage is horrifying – assault and battery of a PWD who cannot get away, perpetrated by a carer, in full view of thousands. Assaults like this happen every day behind closed doors, as abusive carers and healthcare workers who have PWD trapped and dependent hit them and neglect them and rape them. And people around the world are laughing at this assault.

What is there to say? What is wrong with the world?

Why SF’s Proposed Sit/Lie Laws Are a Terrible Idea

In San Francisco currently, there is something of a debate brewing about Mayor Newsom’s proposed sit/lie laws, which would make it illegal for anyone to sit or lie on any public curb or street in San Francisco (with a couple of exceptions).

The intersections with disability here are rather clear. For one thing, there are some intersections between homelessness and disability, because some homeless people are, for example, mentally ill or have disabling physical problems. Do either of these things make them unworthy of compassion, or not human? Of course not, but from the way this proposed ordinance is designed, it is, on a very basic level, criminalizing homelessness even more than it is already criminalized (not to mention socially stigmatized), while taking extra “common sense” steps to avoid citing non-homeless people for an offense. Observe the following response to concerns that SF police would begin to crack down on non-homeless people were the laws to go into effect:

During a heated, five-hour Board of Supervisors public safety committee hearing on the issue Monday, Adachi showed photographs of behavior that would be illegal under Newsom’s proposed law: a well-heeled tourist sitting on her luggage as she waits for a cab, a little boy sitting on a sidewalk clutching his skateboard, and tourists sitting on a curb and gazing up at the sights.

Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman said all of those people would be warned first to move and that none of them would probably receive a citation.

“Obviously common sense is going to be part of the training with enforcement of this statute,” he said at the hearing.

Ah, yes, “common sense.” Common sense, apparently, still makes the further stigmatization of homeless people de rigeur. Because apparently, they don’t deserve to sit down in public, unlike “well-heeled” tourists and neighborhood residents. I wonder what the response to a person with disabilities — tourist or not — needing to sit down on a public street might be? Someone waiting for an ambulance? While that is approaching a bit of a slippery slope argument (which I generally like to avoid), it is worth considering, simply because “common sense” will mean different things to different people — those whose job it is to enforce the statute included.

Also interesting is the framing of this ordinance in terms of concern for children. From one of the SF Gate articles:

Newsom, who bought a home in the Haight recently, was convinced to support an ordinance after walking along Haight Street with his infant daughter and seeing someone smoking crack and blocking the entrance of a business.

Certainly, children need to be protected from dangerous situations or potentially dangerous situations, but is an ordinance that criminalizes the poor and homeless — not all of whom are recreational drug users or addicts — really the way to do it?

Additionally, nowhere have I seen any plan to increase the number of homeless shelters or services for homeless people attached to this ordinance. The implicit message behind these proposed sit/lie laws seems clear: It’s too bad you’re homeless, but don’t you dare be homeless on our streets, because it might make our city look bad. Oh, and you certainly shouldn’t expect the city to help you not be homeless — even after it cites you for breaking the sit/lie law.

(Cross-posted to ham blog)

Bullying – How Can We Stop It?

Here’s another horrific story of bullying, this coming out of Dickson, Oklahoma.

Austin Avery was born prematurely and suffered developmental issues as a result. Last week, when the school called [his mother] Sharlene,  she  knew something was seriously wrong. “We had a call from the school to come pick him up cause he was hallucinating. I just don’t understand why your child goes to school and comes home in a drunken stupor,” says Avery. So, she put him in the car and drove to the emergency room. That’s when doctors told her something she never imagined. “The doctor said that [Austin] was way over the legal limit [for alcohol]. Now, can you imagine a 14-year-old child and what kind of damage that can do to his brain?”

The investigation yielded a report from a fellow student, who reported that bullies had been putting Germ-X, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, in Austin’s milk at lunchtime. This had been occurring regularly since January, without detection by the school or any adult in a position to discipline the bullies.

There are a couple things of note about this story. First is that it got virtually no coverage – I saw it only because I read several hip-hop gossip sites that picked the story up because the child is African-American. Other than those sites, I found absolutely no mention of it anywhere on the web other than the initial report from a local news outlet, quoted above. Intentionally poisoning a child with hand sanitizer seems like a pretty big deal to me – there could have been much more significant and detrimental side effects than alcohol intoxication, and even alcohol intoxication is dangerous enough when we’re talking about a 14 year old with developmental disabilities.

The second thing of note about this story is that Oklahoma already has an extremely robust anti-bullying law and state policy aimed at eliminating bullying. A watchdog anti-bulling group gives the Oklahoma law an A, indicating it is “near perfect” by their standards. Here is a description of their anti-bullying law:

Requires Safe School Committees to give special attention to bullying, incidents of unwanted physical or verbal aggression and sexual harassment and make recommendations. Encourages community involvement, one-on-one student/staff relationships, use of problem solving teams of counselors and/or school psychologists and requires the review of bullying prevention programs utilized by other states, agencies or school districts.  Requires each school district to have policies addressing the prevention of bullying and education about bullying behavior.

So – given that all those rules, policies, requirements, and education were insufficient to stop Austin from being regularly and consistently poisoned for almost four months – how can we realistically address and stop this kind of bullying from happening? How can we provide meaningful protection for children with disabilities? Is it possible to do so through laws and regulations, or will only a long term shift in ableist attitudes be effective?

Recommended Reading for April 20, 2010

Scott Carney (Mother Jones magazine): Inside India’s Rent-a-Womb Business

Despite the growth in services, surrogacy is not officially regulated in India. There are no binding legal standards for treatment of surrogates, nor has any state or national authority been empowered to police the industry. While clinics have a financial incentive to ensure the health of the fetus, there’s nothing to prevent them from cutting costs by scrimping on surrogate pay and follow-up care, or to ensure they behave responsibly when something goes wrong.

Benedict Carey (New York Times): Seeking Emotional Clues Without Facial Cues

Ms. Bogart has Moebius syndrome, a rare congenital condition named for a 19th-century neurologist that causes facial paralysis. When the people she helped made a sad expression, she continued, “I wasn’t able to return it. I tried to do so with words and tone of voice, but it was no use. Stripped of the facial expression, the emotion just dies there, unshared. It just dies.”

Goldfish at Diary of a Goldfish: Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) Will be on May 1st, 2010

Blogging Against Disablism day will be on Saturday, 1st May. This is the day where all around the world, disabled and non-disabled people will blog about their experiences, observations and thoughts about disability discrimination. In this way, we hope to raise awareness of inequality, promote equality and celebrate the progress we’ve made. [Note: Click the link for info on how you can participate in BADD 2010!]

Max Harrold (Montreal Gazette): Filmmaker in wheelchair says red-carpet rejection inspired film

[Filmmaker Sean Marckos] has it all on video: He and a colleague, both in tuxedos and with their tickets in hand, being hustled out of the famous Palais des festivals in Cannes in 2008 and 2009. They were told they could enter only through a rear entrance, away from paparazzi. “They didn’t want me next to the beautiful people like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,” said Marckos, 31, who has muscular dystrophy.

National Center For Lesbian Rights (NCLR): Greene vs. County of Sonoma et al.

One evening, Harold fell down the front steps of their home and was taken to the hospital. Based on their medical directives alone, Clay should have been consulted in Harold’s care from the first moment. Tragically, county and health care workers instead refused to allow Clay to see Harold in the hospital. The county then ultimately went one step further by isolating the couple from each other, placing the men in separate nursing homes.


Stigma Kills: A Concrete Example

Often when bloggers or activists push back against ableist language and stereotypes in the media, especially pop culture, someone will respond with an argument that there are more important disability issues to address and that the topic at hand is mostly irrelevant to disability rights as a whole. This has happened with each of the posts in the Ableist Word Profile series, it’s happened with discussion about ableist tropes in pop culture, it’s happened when critiquing the vast overrepresentation of criminal behavior in news coverage of people with mental illness.

I believe these things matter very much. Perhaps not individually – if I slip and use the word “lame” pejoratively, it does not automatically cause a person with a disability to die instantly. But each individual instance adds up to become a trend, to become a larger understanding and expectation of how things are. And if those understandings and expectations aren’t accurate, it can have dramatically horrific results.

This is because a lot of our ongoing decisionmaking is done automatically, unconsciously. This is because we are constantly presented with such a vast amount of information that if we stopped to consciously evaluate everything, we’d never be able to do anything at all. When I see an object with keys labeled with letters and laid out in the QWERTY design, I recognize it as a keyboard an assume I use it to manually input written data into a computer or typewriter or phone or other device. This saves me the trouble of figuring out each and every time what this object is, what it is for, how I am supposed to interact with it, and what end result I can expect. I do this instantly, even though it is immensely complicated – it has been extraordinarily difficult to program a computer to identify, say, a keyboard from a photo or video, regardless of lighting, angle, and lots of other variables that the brain can process almost instantly.

There are similar examples for evaluating other sensory input. When I touch something, I know instantly and without consciously considering it whether the object is solid or liquid, dry or wet. I have no idea how I make that evaluation and instructing someone else on making that judgment would be immensely difficult for me – but when my foot touches a wet patch of carpet en route to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I pull my foot back lightning fast to avoid what is surely cat puke. If I feel myself losing balance, I put out a hand to catch myself without consciously deciding to, because my classification of my sensations as “losing balance” was done entirely unconsciously.

How does stigma fit into this? Well, a stereotype is an unconscious cognitive shortcut – instead of examining an individual person or situation, we apply a stereotype to make assumptions. While a stereotype is usually seen as a negative thing, they serve an important purpose by allowing us to make educated guesses. For example, when I go into a fast food restaurant, I know to go to the counter and give my order to someone behind the counter, usually wearing a uniform. While this has held true at the places I’ve visited in the past, if I go to an new fast food restaurant that I haven’t visited before, I will assume that I use the same procedure. That’s a useful assumption that saves me the time and energy of approaching each situation as brand new and unrelated.

There are times when stereotypes can be harmful and damaging, as we well know. The stigma against PWDs is an assumption applied to all PWDs simply because they are PWDs, assuming they have a set of presumed characteristics, motivations, and beliefs. It is a stereotype composed of all the understandings and expectations of PWDs conveyed by all the little things – the word choices of the people you talk to, that one character in that on tv show, that story you saw on the news last night. And although the specifics fade away, most people are left with vague, unconscious associations. Again, some of these associations are essentially value-neutral, as how I generally associate red with “stop” and green with “go” from traffic lights and signs. But people can also have unconscious associations around more complex and problematic issues, like race, gender, and disability status.

Social psychologists from Harvard developed a computer-based test to measure the existence of implicit associations and stereotypes – the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT asks users to rapidly categorize words to the left or right of the screen. From the IAT FAQ:

The IAT asks you to pair two concepts (e.g., young and good, or elderly and good). The more closely associated the two concepts are, the easier it is to respond to them as a single unit. So, if young and good are strongly associated, it should be easier to respond faster when you are asked to give the same response (i.e. the ‘E’ or ‘I’ key [to indicate left or right]) to these two. If elderly and good are not so strongly associated, it should be harder to respond fast when they are paired. This gives a measure of how strongly associated the two types of concepts are. The more associated, the more rapidly you should be able to respond. The IAT is one method for measuring implicit or automatic attitudes and is featured on this website. There are other methods, using different procedures, that have been investigated in laboratory studies.

I’ve taken a number of IATs before (because I’m dorky about cognitive science and this kind of stuff) and believe that they have correctly identified in me some negative unconscious associations. For example, I unconsciously associated women with home and family and men with business. Consciously, I strongly disagree with that association! So when I do consciously consider my assumptions about those associations, I override and reject my unconscious associations.

When researching this post, I took the IAT that measures unconscious associations around disability. (I can’t link directly to that test, but it can be found in the IAT demonstrations available here.) Taking the test, I found that I have a slight automatic preference for abled people over PWDs. This doesn’t mean that when I act, speak, or even think about these issues I exhibit that preference. It doesn’t mean that I “really” prefer TABs to PWDs. It means that I have been sufficiently inundated by messages that associate TABs with “good” and PWDs with “bad” that I have a slight unconscious tendency to apply that association, a tendency almost instantaneously overruled by my conscious thought. So it is an association that exists only for the tiniest of moments until it is extinguished by cognition.

How can those tiny moments, almost too small to measure, even matter? Well, as Chally recently posted about, a Los Angeles police officer shot and killed an unarmed man with an unspecific cognitive disability autism [1. ETA since his family disclosed that he had autism in numerous public interviews.]. The officer fired as the man reached towards his waistband after failing to respond to verbal commands from the police. From the LA Times article linked in the post:

[LAPD Officers] Corrales and Diego believed “he [the PWD] was arming himself” and fired, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger said at an afternoon news conference.

The officers made decisions in a fraction of a second,” he added.

In a fraction of a second.

Just long enough for the unconscious association to spark but not long enough for conscious thought to override it.

Just long enough for stigma to kill.