Social work and structural ableism: Thinking about disability and police violence

BLACK DISABLED LIVES MATTER!
BLACK DISABLED LIVES MATTER!

Conversations about police violence are happening all over the world since the killing of Mr. George Floyd – among so many other Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPoC). Needless to say, it is a travesty that so many before him died and many didn’t have these conversations in the ways that people are having them now, but at least more people are having them now. And I want to add a disability thread to that conversation, but first…

Several years prior to 2020, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw added a different thread to the conversation about BIPoC deaths at the hands of police by talking about gender and all of the women who have died due to police violence, but whose names are not known. We got to know the #sayhername movement. People began to think intersectionally about race and gender even if the mainstream news media didn’t report much about the deaths of BIPoC women killed by police.

But there only recently have we learned that 30-50% of the BIPoC people who have died at the hands of police in this country over a three year period had something else in common, they had a disability. This fact was unearthed by the Ruderman Family Foundation in a white paper that examined media coverage of such cases (PDF file here). It was necessary to study this phenomenon this way as there is no legal requirement for police to track disability data related to arrests or deaths. Did you know that Sandra Bland had a disability? Freddie Gray? Elijah McClain?

In studying media reporting, the Foundation noted that disability was either not mentioned, listed as a non-contextualized attribute, used to evoke sympathy for the victim OR to blame the victim and in rare cases allowed for discussion of the intersecting forces that led to lethal use of force situations. The report concludes that “When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.”

Although disabled people make up 1/3 of all households in the United States, that’s 61 million people or about 25% of the U.S. population, I feel as though we are so often *unseen* and *unremembered* in social work circles, our identity is an afterthought. Social worker need to begin to see with a disability lens, to remember disability as an identity. And in working with disabled people, social workers need to think about the ways that they can prevent the deaths of disabled people at the hands of police – and especially BIPoC disabled people. Disability justice advocate Haben Girma, especially, has been out front on this with respect to individual interactions with the police, but let’s think about this more structurally.

Here are a few questions that can guide your work – notice that they move beyond the usual band-aid “train the police to work with disabled folks” response that we usually get and move towards the goal of structural reform! Just as we need to think about structural racism in confronting police violence, so too do we need to think about structural ableism.

  • How can we raise disability culture awareness *throughout* our local police precincts?
  • Are there ways we can rid those precincts of structural ableism such as through the identification and elimination of ableist thinking, tendencies and practices?
  • Are there strategic partnerships we can facilitate that can bridge disability justice advocates with law enforcement and social service partners toward this effort?
  • Are there alternative conflict and dispute resolution systems that we can fund in order to avoid police involvement in “hot situations?”

Are you willing to fight for disability justice in your social work world?

 

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