Disability: Missing from the Conversation of Violence
Carlyn O. Mueller, Ph.D.
Recently, cases of violence against disabled adults and children have made national news. The stories are deeply troubling: a Deaf teenager tased for not complying with police verbal commands; a student with a disability put in a trash can by their teacher; adults with disabilities abused by their caretakers. These instances of violence have been named by disability activists and advocacy groups for decades, particularly disabled people of color who are disproportionately impacted and victimized by violence. As scholars who study disability and violence and two who identify as disabled, we found that research was lagging behind the work of activists and lived experience.
In the Special Issue on “Ableism” of the Journal of Social Issues (JSI), we conducted a selective literature review of three major reports that describe violence in relation to disability. Our goal was to understand the discourse on violence as a persistent problem involving disabled people. The reports focused on different aspects of violence: from tracking incidence, describing media coverage of violence, and discussing incarceration and victimization of people with disabilities. We found that disability was defined differently across the three reports. This not only affects the kinds of data each presented, it also raises questions about the identification and disability-labeling processes used. We also found that the reports differed in their accounts of the relationship among violence, race, and disability, with two reports linking minority races to greater vulnerability among disabled people and one report finding only that multiracial disabled people experienced a higher incidence of violence. Disability activists have long pointed to the importance of race in understanding the impacts of violence, yet this was not consistently captured. The ways we measure, understand, and analyze violence has an impact on the people who experience it and how it is addressed.
Our research, and the context of media reports about violence that troubles us, shows the importance of action. For violence prevention researchers, when you are reporting on demographics of participants from your study, are you including disability in your framework? Researchers who study disability, particularly with respect to violence, must push for critical intersectional analyses that encompass complexities of both race and disability and the oppressive systems at play. It is imperative that the general public become better critical consumers of the media to see the disability narrative that is so often hidden amongst media headlines. One way to do this is by learning from disability activists impacted by these issues, including following the leadership of: The Harriet Tubman Collective, Sins Invalid and HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities). These organizations have denounced both the violence against disabled people and the lack of response to these experiences, and they have led the way amplifying disabled voices about these issues. We can all be a part of the solution by becoming better critical consumers, better researchers, and better citizens by amplifying the stories not being heard and educating ourselves and those around us about the disability narrative as it intersects with violence.