Abuse of disabled must end

Jamakaya, Contributing writer

Millions of Americans were shocked by the video of four individuals taunting and assaulting a man with mental health issues.

The horrendous behavior shed light on a mostly silent epidemic of abuse targeting people with physical and mental disabilities.

In one of the most extensive studies conducted — involving 7,200 respondents nationwide, 87 percent reported verbal or emotional abuse, 51 percent physical abuse, and 42 percent sexual abuse. In addition, 37 percent experienced neglect, and 32 percent were victims of financial abuse.

There are several factors that likely contribute to these shocking statistics. For instance, physical or developmental disability may render people unable to defend themselves, or unable to communicate their abuse to others. They may be isolated, or dependent on a caregiver who abuses them.

In addition, the perpetrator may perceive a disabled person as less human or assume there is little risk of discovery in hurting someone who is less than fully able.

When people with disabilities do seek help, further obstacles present themselves. They may encounter police, hospital or social service personnel who don’t have the training to communicate with them effectively. Emergency shelters may not be physically accessible to them. The assumption that people with disabilities may not be competent or reliable witnesses sometimes keeps prosecutors from pursuing criminal cases.

In Milwaukee, at least, we have made some progress in addressing these issues. IndependenceFirst, which is governed and staffed by a majority of people with disabilities, has led the way with coalition-building, training and education.

Together with police, health care and victim service providers, IndependenceFirst developed a protocol for the delivery of timely, culturally sensitive, accessible and comprehensive services for victims with disabilities. It involves ongoing communication and staff training for all the partner agencies.

IndependenceFirst incorporates abuse prevention in all its support groups, adapting the information and presentation to the communication needs of a particular group. It also distributes a fun coloring and activity book called Same But Different, targeted at children aged 4–8. The book dispels stereotypes while promoting an understanding of similarities and differences among kids.

Additionally, Milwaukee’s primary domestic violence shelter at the new Sojourner Family Peace Center is accessible to people with disabilities.

How can individuals work toward championing the cause of those with disabilities?

The simplest thing is to be aware of our language and the example we set for our children and others. This is especially important to counteract the despicable example set by our new president, who publicly ridiculed a physically disabled reporter.

We should also be vigilant about budget debates at the state and national level, which often impact disability services. Gov. Scott Walker, for instance, refused to accept millions of federal dollars that were available to expand health coverage for the poor and disabled under Medicaid.

Finally, we should know what resources are available. IndependenceFirst sponsors Advocacy Teams that work on issues like transportation and long-term care in the Milwaukee area. Call them at (414) 291-7520. Disability Rights Wisconsin provides protection and advocacy services statewide. Visit them at disabilityrightswi.org or call 800-928-8778.