InsideMS, Winter 2002, Vol. 20, Issue 1
by Karen Zielinski
I was being followed.
Ten years ago I was teaching choral music in a large urban high school. We had just finished our technical rehearsal for the spring musical—“Oklahoma!”—which I was producing and directing. After practice ended at 10 p.m., I got into my car and headed home. As I exited the freeway, I noticed that a car seemed to be following me to my central city neighborhood. I turned sharply at a few corners, just to see if the three men in the car behind stayed with me. They did.
Panicked, I finally pulled into my driveway, turned on my bright high-beam headlights and honked loudly to wake the neighbors. When the neighbors turned on their porch light and came out, the car sped away. Frazzled but relieved, I wondered aloud why they had followed me. My neighbor mused, “Maybe they saw that handicapped parking permit hanging from your rearview mirror!” I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that someone might follow me because of that! I have never forgotten that frightening drive home.
People with disabilities are not exempt from violent crimes such as robbery and assault. Just the opposite. Some research finds that the rate of major crimes against people with substantial disabilities is four to ten times higher than that of the general population.
When people with disabilities are specifically targeted, they become what many would call victims of hate crime. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) defines a hate crime as a criminal offense against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against race, religion, ethnic/national origin, gender, age, disability, or sexual orientation. A person has committed a hate crime when, based on the above criteria, he or she commits assault or battery, theft, criminal trespass, damage to property, mob action, disorderly conduct, or telephone harassment upon an individual or a group.
Hate crimes and the disabled
The FBI says that its highest civil rights priority is the investigation of hate crimes. The most recent FBI statistics—for 2000—list 8,063 hate crime incidents reported by 11,690 law enforcement agencies in 48 states and the District of Columbia. The incidents were motivated by bias: racial, religious, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, disability, and combination biases. Disability bias ranks lower than the others, but sometimes crimes against people with disabilities are underreported because victims fear they will lose their independence. Families often feel that a crime committed against a person with emotional or mental problems will not even be prosecuted. According to Barbara Faye Waxman, in an article titled “Hatred: The Unacknowledged Dimension in Violence Against Disabled People” (Sexuality and Disability, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1991), the police are generally less likely to interpret a crime against a disabled person as a hate crime.
But why else would someone attack a person with a disability? The group All Walks of Life (http://www.awol-texas.org), whose mission is to empower social solutions for people with disabilities, believes the main reason is that someone with a disability is simply more vulnerable to predators.
People who use braces, canes, or other aids give visible clues to predators that they are less likely to escape or fight back.
For those of us living with MS, daily living means managing our disease. But we also need to manage our personal safety. Whether crime is stimulated by hate or simply because we seem to be easy prey, the statistics say we can be targeted. Crimes against people with disabilities occur in many places: assisted living centers, group-care homes, hospitals, public transportation systems, parking lots, nursing homes, schools, and the work place.
Commonsense crime-prevention strategies:
· Be aware of your surroundings—on the street, in a shopping mall, or waiting for a bus or subway.
· Act in a manner that says you are calm, confident, and sure of your purpose and destination.
· Know the neighborhood where you live and work. Check out the locations of fire and police departments, and stores that are open and accessible.
· Consider carrying a personal alarm such as the type joggers use to signal an emergency.
· If you exit a store or mall for a large parking lot, ask a security person to accompany you to your vehicle.
· Put good locks on all your doors. Police recommend double-cylinder deadbolt locks. Make sure you can easily use the locks you install.
· Install peepholes on the front and back doors at eye level—at two eye levels if you use a wheelchair.
· Get to know your neighbors. Watchful neighbors who look out for each other are a frontline defense against crime!
· Never open the door to a stranger without first verifying the stranger’s identity and the purpose of the visit.
· Never tell a stranger on the phone that you are disabled.
· Stick to well-lighted, well-traveled streets. Avoid shortcuts through vacant lots, wooded areas, parking lots, or alleys.
· Carry your purse close to your body, not dangling by the straps. Put your wallet in an inside coat or front pants pocket. If you use a wheelchair, keep your purse or wallet tucked snugly between you and the inside of the chair.
· Consider getting a cellular phone.
· If your state offers the option, chose a hanging handicapped parking tag instead of a license plate, so you have the option not to reveal this information.
People with disabilities are tough. We deal with multiple challenges in daily life. Although some of us might not be able to enroll in a self-defense class, all of us can arm ourselves with one type of critical self-defense: common sense.
National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
University of Maryland
1224 Benjamin Building
College Park, MD 20742
Karen Zielinski is a Franciscan nun and communications director for
the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio. This is her 27th year of
living with MS.
© 2002 The National Multiple Sclerosis Society