time disability scholar Professor David Pfeiffer stated (in a New Political
Science review of Beyond Ramps) that he "ha[s] never met a former inmate of a
state school or a state hospital who was not repeatedly raped, men and women."
Disabled persons in the movement are tuned-in to such eye opening reality but
the general public is under the illusion (and perhaps would prefer to believe)
that these institutions that warehouse disabled persons really take "care" of
"them. For the disbelievers, Pfeiffer’s observation has recently been backed up
by studies that show disabled persons are the most likely group to be victims of
serious crime. Dan Sorensen, reporting in the TASH newsletter (March 2000),
concluded that research consistently finds that people with substantial
disabilities are targets of violent and other major crime at rates four to ten
times higher than that of the general population. Estimates are that around 5
million disabled people are victims of serious crime annually in the United
-> Sexual abuse rates of disabled men and women are significantly higher than in
the general population. Research shows, through structured interviews of 27
women and men with mild mental retardation in four San Francisco Bay Area
counties, that just under 80% of the women and 54% of the men had been sexually
abused at least one time. These rates compare to 13% of women in the general
population who have been victims of at least one rape in their lifetimes.
-> Sorensen estimated that in California only 4.5% of these crimes are actually
reported to authorities, compared to an average 44% report rate for the general
population. Several studies suggest that 80 – 85% of criminal abuse of residents
in institutions is never reported to authorities. Evidence also shows that when
these crimes are reported, there are lower rates of police follow-up,
prosecution, and convictions.
major epidemiological study of 40,000 children in Omaha schools from 1995 to
1996 found that children with disabilities suffered a rate of abuse 3.44 times
greater than children without disabilities, and children with behavior disorders
suffered a relative rate of physical abuse 7.3 times that of non-disabled
children. The relative rates for sexual assault was 5.5 times greater, for
neglect 6.7 times higher, and for emotional abuse 7 times higher. These findings
are consistent with other studies that uncover that children and adults with
psychiatric disabilities suffer some of the highest rates of crime and criminal
abuse among the disabled population.
Dick Sobsey (Canada) is studying homicides against people with developmental
disabilities and is finding a pattern of sentencing discrimination with these
murderers getting substantially lesser sentences. Several studies report very
high rates (8.5 to over 20 times higher) of violent crime against people with
Sorensen report made this year’s Project Censored’s Top 25 most censored
stories. Sorensen says "I know of only three significant stories on this issue
over the last ten years. Most reports describe isolated crimes with no hint that
there is a large, serious, and persistent pattern of violence directed against
people with disabilities."
Institutional abuse can carry a life long sentence for the target of abuse. Such
was the case of James Levier of Scarborough, Maine, a 60 year old deaf man who
had publicly testified that he had been sexually and physically abused at the
Governor Baxter School for the Deaf . Levier was among a group of people seeking
compensation from the state to make up for the abuse at the state school. A 1982
inquiry by the state Attorney General’s Office confirmed that abuse had occurred
last year, Levier testified before state legislators that he was abused when he
attended state-run schools for the deaf in Portland and Falmouth between 1949
and 1957. The combined abuse, he said, contributed to lifelong depression,
suicidal urges and violent outbursts. The last outburst was when Levier took a
rifle to a shopping parking lot and wound up being shot to death by police in a
confrontation. His white minivan had writing on the side that suggested Levier
was planning to die for his beliefs regarding mistreatment of deaf persons.
was Levier up against? A spokesman for the state Department of Education said at
a legislative hearing that there was no money in the governor’s new budget to
compensate victims of abuse and the spokesman also questioned the
appropriateness of a public apology, saying the state was only at fault in some
cases of abuse. In a typical pass the buck strategy, the state would not even
apologize for its acknowledged part in failing to provide adequate protection to
Disabled persons should not be thought of as victims who have resigned
themselves to abuse. We have been working to change policies that make disabled
persons such easy targets for abuse. It is a tough uphill battle given the
vested interests – those organizations, businesses and persons who have
established an advantageous relationship to income from these institutions, that
keeps the money going to them rather than someone else such as the disabled
Historically disabled persons have been segregated from the rest of society into
state and private institutions, homes for the deaf and for the "incurables," in
for profit nursing homes and group homes. All of these institutions have a stake
in keeping disabled bodes in their facilities to keep the money coming in and
they have proved to be resistant to reform that would give disabled persons the
freedom to choose where they want to live and with whom. These institutions are
more beneficial for their owners and the hierarchies of professionals who work
for them than for disabled persons who are forced to be there.
Systemic institutionalization makes much of the abuse of disabled persons
possible by imposing powerlessness on the "victims" of abuse. If policies (and
public money) are directed to institutionalize those who may need assistance
with daily living what can a disabled inmate (at the bottom of the hierarchy)
possibly do within the confines of a nursing home wall to stop it? Fire the
offending staff person? So disabled persons have collectively organized to make
community care a policy option to alter this reality. Dick Sobsey who has
studied such abuse for years believes that home based services promise a less
fertile climate for abuse. Under the Micassa bill which Tom Harkin has
introduced to Congress, Medicaid would provide an in home services alternative.
The money would follow the individual and the individual would choose where to
live. Some states have such programs, some states underfund them so there are
impossibly long waiting lists for community-based services.
Collective organization is key to overriding the powerful vested interests but
so is developing control over reforms aimed at remedying the problem but only
scratch the surface. For example, the Leben "Home" on 45th Avenue in Elmhurst, a
for-profit board and care facility for people designated as "mentally ill," was
supposed to be a positive community alternative to the psychiatric hospital
setting. Leben, however, is a "brick building with a barbed wire perimeter on
45th Avenue in Elmhurst" according to the New York Times "a place annually
deemed by the state as acceptable quarters for 360 people with mental illness,
some of whom can routinely be spotted panhandling on surrounding streets or
picking through the garbage of the nearby Continental Diner." ("Inquiry Finds
Mentally Ill Patients Endured ‘Assembly Line’ Surgery," March 18, 2001)
the years Leben has amassed a record of neglect and misconduct. Last year, the
state forced the "home" to evacuate its first floor described as "a warren of
crumbling walls and fetid mattresses where 60 people lived before they were led
out into the daylight, some clutching belongings in black trash bags." (NYT) A
few years earlier, the home overlooked the disappearance of a resident. Seven
months later, his family learned that he had been run over by a Long Island Rail
Road train well before the home reported him missing, and had been buried,
unmourned and anonymous. A resident was raped at the home by a janitor in 1995
and two residents were killed, their culprits never found, in 1989. In 1993 a
decomposed body was discovered wedged behind a freezer.
state pays the home’s operator, Jacob Rubin, $3 million a year to operate this
"home." Since 1992 Rubin has been accused in lawsuits of misappropriating
thousands of dollars from residents, of trying to withhold psychiatric treatment
from residents, and of playing a role in a 1998 scheme that got 24 residents to
consent to what state officials called "assembly line" and often unnecessary
the state of New York has not closed Leben down or found an appropriate safe
setting for the residents who live there. Leben remains the largest for-profit
home for mentally ill persons in New York but some organizations believe the
Leben situation is the tip of the iceberg for the adult group home industry.
Clarence J. Sundram, a former chairman of the Quality of Care Commission told
the NYT that "[the state] has had a history of completely ineffective regulation
of this industry."
Indeed the state has increasingly proven its capitulation to the interests of
business and other institutions in many arenas where it needs to be protecting
citizens and enforcing the law. Disabled persons, for instance, found it
necessary to file a class action lawsuit against the Washington D.C. housing
authority for violating federal law. The suit against the D. C. Housing
Authority was filed on behalf of disabled people who are denied accessible
public housing in violation Rehabilitation Act of the 1973. Two accusations
against the state are that disabled children must crawl up stairs to reach
bathrooms, and young men are forced into nursing homes because D. C. has failed
to comply with federal housing laws. This failure of government works very well
for the nursing homes and other institutions who have more captive bodies to
house and to charge the government $40,000 – $80,000 per bed per year.
are too many instances of abuse and violence to list in this commentary but here
are a couple more to think about.
Disabled persons are routinely segregated from paid employment (approximately
two thirds of the working age disabled population is unemployed). Disabled
persons are coerced out of the workforce (much as nondisabled workers are
coerced into it) and onto at or below poverty benefits to the benefit of the
capitalists. The disability benefit system thus serves as a socially legitimized
means by which the capitalist class can avoid hiring or retaining non-standard
workers and can ‘morally’ shift the cost of supporting them onto poverty-based
government programs — thereby perpetuating their poverty. Unemployed disabled
persons are not being "taken care of" as society might like to believe. Deaf
activist Richard Roehm, for instance, recently wrote:
in Orange County,California, we have scores of people with disabilities having
to choose between paying for rent or buying food. In addition to our advocacy
facet, we’ll be helping people with disabilities get the same access to proper
nutrition as everyone else… Starting next summer we’ll be running food drives
to help these people with disabilities."
quote Ghandi, "poverty is the worst form of violence." It is hard to know which
is worse, poverty or the commodification of every aspect of disabled life under
capitalism. Last year, for instance, Healthfield Home Health Corporation that
provides David Jayne (who is a quadriplegic) with in home assistance terminated
Jayne from Medicare services because he had dared to go out into the world and
was no longer considered "homebound." Jayne had left home to watch a football
game and the in home assistant told her boss at the corporation.
Healthfield had been sending an attendant to Jayne’s home since 1997 to help him
get out of bed and take a shower.
Healthfield CEO Tony Strange told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that
"Knowingly providing services to a patient not considered "homebound" could cost
his company reimbursements or even contracts with the government."
Medicare rule does need to be changed and a coalition has been formed to do so
http://www.amendhomeboundpolicy.homestead.com/) but Jayne upon becoming a
quadriplegic also became a commodity, a disabled body used to generate profits
for this corporation. Nearly half of Healthfield’s $65 million in annual
billings comes from Medicare.
not willing to gamble that maybe [Medicare] won’t deem them as appropriate
care," said Strange. "I could wake up in January and not be a $65 million
company; instead be a $35 million company." ("Home Not Always Where Heart Is
Paralyzed Patient’s Activity Cancels His Health Care," The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, December 2, 2000).
corporation made a business decision – it divorced itself from Jayne’s
situation. It terminated him without considering what that might do to Jayne’s
life. In fact, last year Healthfield tried to terminate Jayne’s service after he
went to the funeral of a friend who had died from ALS. The agency backed off
after being contacted by Bob Raubach, a lawyer from the Georgia Advocacy Office.
This agency founded to protect disabled people is helping Jayne appeal the
decision this time.
Raubach said the issue is recurring. "Some [home health care] agencies are
afraid of being reimbursed by Medicare," he said. "But more so, they want to get
rid of patients who are difficult, who are not as profitable."
neoliberal government is determined to contract services to for profit
businesses –which are going to treat disabled persons like commodities — the
calculus of the vested interest is dominate. The market is not the solution.
majority population may believe it is because of our physical or mental
conditions that we become despondent and, so thinking, society is all too ready
to grant our "right to die". But it is the abuse reported here and inexcusable
treatment which is hard to endure. Society, by allowing these abuses to go on,
is really sanctioning them — perpetuating an unrecognized systemic violence
against disabled persons.
Marta Russell can be reached at