Study Shows High Rates of Violent Crime Against People With Disabilities

The first national study on crime against people with disabilities has been released by the Justice Department, and it shows that people with disabilities (PWD) are the victims of violent crimes at approximately 1.5 times the rate of temporarily able-bodied people. NPR reports:

The results, just released by the Justice Department, are disturbing. But they come as no surprise to those who work with people with disabilities. For a long time, they’ve known about this particular crime problem, at least anecdotally.

But what people in the field had long known, and what the Justice Department report confirms, is that crime is a daily fact of life for many people with disabilities and most of it never gets public attention.

The study, by Michael Rand and Erika Harrell of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that, in 2007, people with disabilities were victims of 716,000 violent crimes and 2.3 million property crimes.

Disabled women were the most at risk: They were victims at rates almost twice that for other females. And unlike other women, those with disabilities were far more likely to be victimized by people they weren’t close to. The report found that 16 percent of violent crimes against females with a disability were committed by a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend. Among women without disabilities, it was 27 percent.

The study also shows that assailants are most likely to victimize people with cognitive disabilities, and people with multiple disabilities (a person with more than one disability was the victim in more than half of all violent crimes committed against PWD).

On the subject of violence against women specifically, while attacks by intimate partners make up a smaller percentage of violent crimes against women with disabilities than those against able-bodied women, previous studies also show that caretakers are the most common perpetrators of sexual violence in cases where women with disabilities are victims, followed by male family members. Thus, unless things have changed dramatically in recent years, the statement that “those with disabilities were far more likely to be victimized by people they weren’t close to” is likely not true, but rather it’s more commonly different relationships that are being violated.

The fact that these crimes so rarely make the news — and that when they do, they are presented as some sort of abnormality rather than a systematic problem — has to be noted a sizable part of the reason for their prevalence. Silence helps abuse to continue, and abusers are most like to choose victims who a) they believe will stay silent or b) they believe will be silenced if/when the abuse is reported. Able-bodied society has erected many barriers to PWD speaking out about abuse, which are heavily connected to wider forms of ableist oppression, and Lauredhel discusses some of the most common ones here. Violent criminals quite logically utilize the abusive systems we already have in place to their greatest advantage. And this we should already know.

Our society rarely likes to acknowledge and address issues of systematic prejudice and violence — indeed, such systems are created because those privileged in them have something to gain — and so these cases, the perpetrators, and the victims are frequently overlooked. That this is being billed as the first ever national study of crime against PWD alone tells us that. Acknowledging the violence surrounding us might force more people to realize that these high rates of violence exist for a reason, and that just like with any other marginalized group that is routinely victimized by others, it has nothing to do with PWD being inherently easy or vulnerable targets. Rather, it has everything to do with how a society structured around the needs and perspectives of able-bodied people marginalize and isolate people with disabilities and otherwise treat them as lesser human beings, unworthy of rights, safety and protection. Such a society only aides and encourages perpetrators of violence.


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27 Responses to Study Shows High Rates of Violent Crime Against People With Disabilities

  1. amandaw says:

    It doesn’t help when a case does come forward, and the judge even rules in the victim’s favor, but misunderstands who the victim actually is (the person who suffered the violence, not her “owners” whose property was mishandled)

    I think it is also appropriate to quote this here. (via Anna)

    Some disabled feminists have suggested that since women have been the traditional carers of elderly people, disabled children and adults, that some women activists may subconsciously regard these groups as symbolic of the chains that have bound them to the home (Hume 1990).

    The intricacies of the relationship between caretakers’ concerns (which largely means women’s concerns, and therefore an obvious issue for feminist analysis) and disability is something that is so rarely picked apart in feminist spaces, but so desparately needs to be. It is two groups with less power (whatever the relative power levels between they alone) than dominant society, being screwed over by dominant society, but sometimes committing injustices against one another in the process of getting screwed over by dominant society.

    • Cara says:

      Amandaw, that case you linked to reminds me very much of the notion of rape as a “property crime” against the victim’s father or husband, rather than a violent crime against the victim’s own body. It’s far from a difficult parallel to see. Ack.

  2. Felicity says:

    Thanks for this post, Cara.

  3. meloukhia says:

    It’s also disturbing to me that the violence is so normalized that it’s often extremely difficult for people with disabilities to report caretakers &/or have their cases taken seriously. In residential facilities, for example, patients pretty much have no recourse unless they have an aggressive advocate on the outside. Especially in the realm of home health support services, the attitude from the government sometimes seems to be “whatever happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors.”

    In my days working as a home health aide I saw some pretty horrific things, reported them, and repeatedly saw no action taken. Not even an inspection or home visit from the county officials supposedly monitoring the program. Not a heartening thing to see.

  4. annaham says:

    It also adds and is added to by the unfortunately widespread perception that PWDs are not “real people,” or are somehow not fully human.

    Horrifying.

  5. Sailorman says:

    Acknowledging the violence surrounding us might force more people to realize that these high rates of violence exist for a reason, and that just like with any other marginalized group that is routinely victimized by others, it has nothing to do with PWD being inherently easy or vulnerable targets. Rather, it has everything to do with how a society structured around the needs and perspectives of able-bodied people marginalize and isolate people with disabilities and otherwise treat them as lesser human beings, unworthy of rights, safety and protection.

    Why are you framing this as an “either/or” issue, and not a “both/and” issue?

    It seems obvious that your second point is true, regarding marginalization etc. But in many cases the first part is ALSO true, insofar as PWD are often easier targets for crime, especially those with mental disabilities.

    I basically agree with the premise of your post but I don’t understand why you take easy targets and vulnerability entirely off the table.

    • Cara says:

      Because no one is an inherently vulnerable target. People are made vulnerable by society. In a world where prejudice did not exist, and violence was considered unacceptable, there would be no targets at all, let alone vulnerable ones.

      • Cara says:

        In other words, there is a difference between being easy to physically injure — which could apply to any number of people — and being an easy target.

        Also! People with disabilities are a very large and diverse group. To say that they are inherently anything that is not along the lines of “worthwhile as human beings” is to get yourself on the fast track to fucked up ableist generalizations.

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  7. Anna says:

    Plus, of course, there’s a totally different reaction when people murder their child with a disability than there is when they murder their currently non-disabled child. So, Tracy Latimer’s murderer has been hailed in newspapers and by my (former) friends as having done a brave thing by murdering his daughter by leaving her in a running vehicle with the exhaust piped in to her window – you know, that way we think is too inhuman to put down dogs – because he felt she was suffering too much. And people think it’s horrible that he went to jail for this, ignoring testimony from Tracy’s teachers and doctors that she was a happy girl who had a great personality.

    There have been three cases these last two weeks of parents murdering their child with a disability, and then killing themselves. When this happens with currently non-disabled children, there are certain reactions one can expect, like horror and outrage that a parent would do such a thing. But hey, the kid was crippled, and it’s just so sad that the parent was so overwhelmed by what they had to do that they had to kill themselves as well.

    We are being murdered, just by virtue of who we are. I’m twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime, and twice as likely to be told it’s because of my mental health condition – that I made him do it by being who I am. Because crazy ladies like me, we deserve it.

  8. thetroubleis says:

    Yep, because we take up valuable resources and add nothing to to society. It’s not at all like society is set up to make it hard for us to participate.

  9. abby jean says:

    i’m reminded of the 2007 story about a woman in england who wanted to have a hysterectomy done on her adolescent daughter, who is described as “severely disabled” in a non-specific way. the discussion centered on the extra work the girl’s menstruation would create for the mother. and also, horrifyingly, as a precaution for in case the girl was ever raped so she would not become pregnant.

    i’m sure the specific situation was more nuanced than that, but the discussions i saw on the topic certainly weren’t. they framed the girl as an object to be customized to best serve the owner’s needs. and they perceived the problem to be addressed not that the girl was in greater danger (culturally constructed, i agree, cara, rather than inherently vulnerable) of rape but that she might get pregnant and that would be so inconvenient for them. (and oh gods the last thing we need is a disabled baby!)

    when we have those attitudes and assumptions underlying our thoughts and discussion of people with disability, it’s not at all surprising they manifest in action – both because the individuals have those attitudes and because they exist in a culture/context where those messages are not just tolerated but reinforced.

  10. LeftieLeftist says:

    While disabled people are not “inherently” vulnerable, they are certainly vulnerable in contexts where there disability is a handicap. Blind people are vulnerable to being shortchanged, people who can’t walk may be vulnerable to someone grabbing their stuff and running off and so on. Mentally disabled people have the additional issue that what they say may be dismissed by others. The studies do make sense, if you wanted to victimize someone, would you go after someone less able to defend themselves or one who is more able and possibly able to get agents of society on her behalf? Also, consider that in situations with caregivers, if a caregiver is removed from the home the disabled person may simply have no one else to consider.

    I do wish there was a recourse for parents who no longer wanted to take care of a kid to drop them off into state care or something like that. A severely disabled kid can otherwise mean an end to your regular life and as a liberal I prefer that people have a choice in how they live it.

  11. Medea says:

    I do wish there was a recourse for parents who no longer wanted to take care of a kid to drop them off into state care or something like that. A severely disabled kid can otherwise mean an end to your regular life and as a liberal I prefer that people have a choice in how they live it.

    As a liberal I’m not sure that “a choice in how you live your life” extends to abandoning your children if they inconvenience you. I know it can be hard, but–the way you put that just seemed to put severely disabled children (what kind of disabilities are we talking about here?) on the same level as kittens. Whoops, turns out I’m allergic–time to take her to the shelter! How far would you extend the right to child abandonment? Could someone “drop off” his kid for any reason?

    The novel April Witch by Majgull Axelsson dealt with the topic in an interesting way. The disabled main character, handed over as a baby to a state hospital, refuses to allow herself to be forgotten and replaced with three “normal” foster children. She is their fourth sister, and as an adult she haunts them with her witchcraft.

  12. Anna says:

    LeftieLeftist,

    A severely disabled kid can otherwise mean an end to your regular life and as a liberal I prefer that people have a choice in how they live it.

    There, fixed that for you.

    Also, many children in foster care are children with disabilities whose parents either could not or would not care for them.

  13. amandaw says:

    Acknowledging the violence surrounding us might force more people to realize that these high rates of violence exist for a reason, and that just like with any other marginalized group that is routinely victimized by others, it has nothing to do with PWD being inherently easy or vulnerable targets. Rather, it has everything to do with how a society structured around the needs and perspectives of able-bodied people marginalize and isolate people with disabilities and otherwise treat them as lesser human beings, unworthy of rights, safety and protection. Such a society only aides and encourages perpetrators of violence.

    I do have to note. This is exactly the kind of analysis on disability that Big Blogs never seem to get to. They quote something, write a couple condemnatory sentences (How awful! Those meanies!) and call it a day. Cara, on the other hand, takes the opportunity to learn as much as she can, and vigorously advocates for causes she does not have a personal stake in. (I still think disability activism counts for anyone with any medical condition because of the root it grows from, but this is not the only cause she has thrown herself into.) And the writers here in general do their best to address issues as they are raised and seek out so that they can address things without someone else having to complain first. I appreciate that.

    Sailorman @ #7,

    The first footnote on my latest post might be instructive here. Women with physical disabilities are subject to a similar rate of violence as women without; it is women with mental/intellectual conditions who are subject to a high rate of violence. It’s almost as though it’s not about targeting someone who can’t run away, but targeting someone whose voice will not be heard by hir community. (Many instances of abuse go unaddressed because the other people helping care for the victim don’t bother listening for the signals the victim gives that something has gone wrong. And even if they recognize it, and even if they complain about it, the rest of the community may never take the victim seriously because of stigma about hir condition. That has shit all to do with “inherent” vulnerability and everything to do with society’s approach to dealing with disability.)

  14. coldneedles says:

    I do wish there was a recourse for parents who no longer wanted to take care of a kid to drop them off into state care or something like that. A severely disabled kid can otherwise mean an end to your regular life and as a liberal I prefer that people have a choice in how they live it.

    To be honest I think this is a fairly inappopriate comment on this thread, which is about violent crime against people with disabilities and not about caregivers. Frankly it smacks of derailing.

    How hard it is to care for a severly disabled child should have nothing to do with systemic violence against people with disabilities.

  15. Cara says:

    It’s an exceedingly inappropriate comment, and I can’t even fathom why someone would think it was appropriate. I was originally going to go into a long list of reasons why it’s inappropriate until I realized that it was just setting up a long and defensive back and forth about what was really meant. So coldneedles said it best. It’s inappropriate and it’s derailing in a rather ugly way.

    So stop it. Now.

  16. coldneedles says:

    Yeah, I would have had said exceedingly except I’ve been having to sugar coat and swallow a lot of shit in my real life regarding disability and unfortunatly that’s carried over.

    Thanks for not making this a place where I have to do that.

  17. Persia says:

    You know what else can mean an end to your ‘regular life?’ Having kids, period, full stop.

    AmandaW@17:

    Women with physical disabilities are subject to a similar rate of violence as women without; it is women with mental/intellectual conditions who are subject to a high rate of violence. It’s almost as though it’s not about targeting someone who can’t run away, but targeting someone whose voice will not be heard by hir community.

    Just like children who don’t have strong family structures will often be targeted by child molesters– it’s the person who won’t be heard and/or doesn’t have a support system to lean on. It’s so ugly.

  18. peanutbutter says:

    The bit about “natural” limitations is an absurd slope. I’ve pointed out before how the support structure of society is biased toward abled people for no particularly good reason. That the blind person can get shortchanged is not an inherent function of his blindness, it’s because we design our money in such a way that there’s little besides sight to distinguish. (Other countries, for example, have different sizes for different denominations or textures and the like as additional markers.)

    What our ablist society ignores is that we are all vulnerable, in various ways, and that vulnerability is very often reinforced by cultural and societal norms. But it’s just easier to pat the disabled on the head (or ignore them altoghether) rather than consider what’s really going on.

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  20. Sailorman says:

    Just to be clear: I said “often easier targets for crime, especially those with mental disabilities.” That was deliberately qualified and relative.

    It doesn’t seem that we disagree much; i’m just trying to make sure that you don’t think I was trying to, as you put it,

    # Cara says:
    …to say that they are inherently anything that is not along the lines of “worthwhile as human beings” is to get yourself on the fast track to fucked up ableist generalizations.

    when I was trying to avoid just that.

    • Cara says:

      Sailorman, I wasn’t trying to imply anything about the language that you used, merely attempting to answer your question about the language that I did.

  21. Tlönista says:

    Acquiring a disability can also mean an end to your “regular life”. PWD don’t deserve to live it without exploitation and violence? I guess that doesn’t fit into the “liberal” choice paradigm…

    Thanks for blogging about this, Cara.

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