The Mistreatment of Adults with Developmental Disabilities in the Legal System
By Deborah-Ruth Ferber
I will always remember the headline in the Toronto Sun newspaper on February 3, 2012: “Toronto police shoot and kill man with scissors wearing hospital gown.” The day was like any other. Crisp, clear, and likely well below the freezing point. A quiet, snowy residential suburb in Toronto, Canada was just waking up and starting its day when suddenly a man appeared out of nowhere holding two pairs of scissors in his hands. The man was wearing nothing more than a hospital gown and clearly seemed confused and in a daze. Reports later confirmed the fact that he had somehow made his way out of the psychiatric ward of the local hospital and down the street. Nevertheless, instead of using a calming influence, the police acted out of instinct, shooting and ultimately killing the man.
Questions were raised concerning the police force’s brute violence, failure to address the man’s mental health issues or request aid from health care professionals, and about why the man left the hospital in the first place; however, four years later, these questions have still not been answered conclusively. What I do know is that this was a turning point for me in my understanding of disability awareness. Before reading this shocking article, I had never thought much about the way people with disabilities interact with the legal system. Today, I realize that having a developmental disability or mental illness significantly disadvantages someone from receiving the support and counsel of the legal system they deserve regardless of whether they find themselves in the role of victim or offender.
Our View of Victims
It almost goes without saying that people who have developmental disabilities are more susceptible to experiencing crime done to them than the general population. The reasons are numerous: lack of ability to fully communicate or withdraw consent, inability to fully express one’s needs, or difficulty exerting physical restraint on an offender to name but a few. Even more disturbing is the fact that media and society in general fail to acknowledge the severity of the crimes committed against people with disabilities and downplay the detrimental effects such actions can have on one’s personhood. Most notably, Leigh Ann Davis a social worker for The Arc (an American organization which seeks to safeguard adults with developmental disabilities and provide legal resources for them) commented on the fact that committed crimes are often referred to as “abuse” or “neglect” rather than “rape” or “murder.”
In the United Kingdom, a recent magazine article was published entitled, “Justice is Served, Unless You’re Disabled” in which author Ryan Kyle addressed the stunning fact that while all other forms of hate crime have decreased significantly in recent years, violence towards people with disabilities has increased by 20%. Kyle further argues that when these crimes are committed, people with disabilities have nowhere to go for support because few lawyers will take on such cases and of those who do, not all are within the law themselves. Realizing the disparity of justice in this situation, Kyle urges his readers to take action, to educate themselves, and to raise awareness on these matters among the general public. He writes with conviction, “Failing to recognize or address discrimination and hate crimes against disabled people doesn’t make it go away – it only increases its odiousness. More atrociously, it serves to make it appear somehow benign or to be expected when it happens. That its existence and repetitiveness does not make it noticeable or create demand for it to be wiped out is a sad fact.” He adds, “Justice needs to be done and to be seen to be done, not just for the individual but for all the individuals coming after them, and for the kind of society we are striving to be.” In particular he raises the issue of childhood bullying and the lack of support kids with disabilities face and asks the question: what is this teaching our children about the way we interact with those who are different than us?
In the United States alone, statistics point to the fact that people with developmental disabilities are 4-10% more likely to be victims of crime than those without a disability. Children in particular are over three times more likely to experience abuse, and some statistics claim that as many as 90% of children with disabilities may be bullied within the school system.  Our society definitely has a long way to go in how we respond and relate to such horrifying evidence of mistreating of those who already find themselves marginalized.
According to research done by The Arc, while people with disabilities comprise only around 2-3% of the American population, they account for 4-10% of those who find themselves in prison. The Foundation for People With Learning Disabilities (FPLD), a U.K. initiative suggests that as many as 7% of adult prisoners in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have an IQ of under 70 and another 25% have an IQ under 80 whereas up to 60% of prisoners have difficulty communicating. The FPLD further acknowledges the legal system’s lack of clearly explaining the reasons for arrest and trial in many situations and the inability to locate proper support systems to guide someone with a developmental disability through the rigorous legal process.
For someone with a developmental disability, involvement in committing a crime is not always what it seems. In many cases, people with disabilities may be unknowingly used as accomplices by those they rely on for support such as parents or carers. They may also unknowingly leave a crime scene prematurely, feel intimidated by the overwhelming police presence and thus confess to crimes they did not really commit, or pretend to understand their legal rights in an attempt to cover up their disability due to shame or fear. Furthermore, although the death penalty is not permitted for people with developmental disabilities across the U.S., it is still largely the responsibility of individual states to determine what qualifies as a disability.
While countries like the U.S., U.K., and Canada still have a long way to go in terms of making our legal system more accessible for people with disabilities, we are starting to move in the right direction. Organizations such as The Arc, and the Big Issue (both of which have been quoted in this article) identify and address the issues surrounding the unfair treatment people with disabilities face and urge their readers to also raise public awareness. While one person alone cannot effect massive change, it should be our individual responsibility to determine how we will treat everyone with respect and equality.
We need to be conditioning our children from a young age to see everyone as a unique and whole person created and loved by the Creator. We need to ask our churches to raise their voice and address such matters openly. We can consider reading up on these issues and lobbying our government. We do not have the time and space to be silent any longer and passively watch injustice taking place. As the body of Christ we are called to act and to act now!
“Toronto police shoot a kill man with scissors wearing hospital gown,” February 3, 2012, http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2012/02/03/toronto_police_shoot_and_kill_man_with_scissors_wearing_hospital_gown.html
 “People With Intellectual Disability in the Criminal Justice System: Victims and Suspects,” August 2009, http://www.thearc.org/what-we-do/resources/fact-sheets/criminal-justice
 Ryan Kyle, “Justice is Served Unless You’re Disabled,” The Big Issue, February 22-28, 2016, 38.
 “Criminal Justice System,” N.D., http://www.learningdisabilities.org.uk/help-information/learning-disability-a-z/c/criminal-justice-system/
Deborah-Ruth Ferber is a Field Associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network.
Editor’s Note: Moving Beyond Ablesism is a quarterly column featuring the work of the Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADNet) www.adnetonline.org and offers reflections from different authors on the various issues facing persons with disabilities.