Keeping the Promise of the ADA: Unequal Justice for Disabled Victims of Murder

Lydia Brown

Lydia Brown is being honored as a Champion of Change for  embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and her commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Generations of disability rights activists, in bipartisan partnership with policymakers, have made great strides toward fulfilling the ADA’s promises of equality of opportunity, full participation in society, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Yet keeping the promise of the ADA also means confronting the difficult and uncomfortable reality that people with disabilities continue to be disproportionately victimized by abuse and violence.

Since I began advocating for disability justice in 2009, I have learned that violence has permeated every part of disability history. People with disabilities were targeted for elimination during the Holocaust under Nazi Germany, forcibly sterilized under the Constitution in Buck v. Bell (1927), a decision that has never been overturned, and repeatedly rejected for life-saving organ transplants solely on the basis of disability without any legitimate medical reason.

Are the names Daniel Leubner, Angelica Auriemma, and George Hodgins familiar to you? If you don’t know their stories, I suggest you google them. Each of these people were killed by those that were supposed to care for them, and in each case, the victim’s disability was the motivating factor in the commission of the crime. Daniel, Angelica, and George were all autistic, as I am. The horror of their murders is regularly compounded by dehumanizing and devaluing rhetoric, empathy for the aggressors rather than the victims, and misrepresentation in the media, in public discourse, and in policymaking discussions.

I have testified against the abuses by the Judge Rotenberg Center in my home state of Massachusetts, where six residents with disabilities died because of violent aversive “treatments.” I have written proposed legislation in Massachusetts demanding a regulatory response to continued police brutality that has caused the deaths of fellow autistic Americans. I have campaigned against the use of restraints and seclusions in school, which have been cited many times by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in testimony before Congress as the cause of death for many students with disabilities.

Hate crimes against people with disabilities demand a response from all communities in order to combat the insidious attitude that our lives are less valuable and not worth fighting for. As long as people like me can be killed for the crime of inhabiting atypical bodies and minds and as long as those responsible can escape any real consequences for their crimes, neither I nor my children nor my children’s children will be free to achieve equality of access and opportunity.

The specter of violence remains an enormous obstacle to equal rights for Americans with disabilities. Until we begin to have serious discussions about the ramifications of violence against people with disabilities and what we can do to implement policies and foster communities that respect and affirm people with disabilities, these realities will remain ensconced in shadows. How do you get rid of shadows? Expose them to the light. That’s what true champions of change have always done and, together, we’ll do the same here.

Lydia Brown is the Undersecretary for Disability Affairs in the Georgetown University Student Association and Project Assistant for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

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