While the nursing homes have been getting most of the headlines, the coronavirus has been ravaging another vulnerable group: the developmentally disabled. Neil Sullivan says people like his brother Joe are the “marginalized” of the marginalized. (June 11)

AP Domestic

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Disability Pride Month. But that’s not why people are marching. 

Disability rights advocates in Austin, Texas, protested the care and treatment of 46-year-old Michael Hickson, a quadriplegic Black man who died of COVID-19, The Austin American-Statesman reported. Doctors determined Hickson could not be saved after his organs began to fail, but advocates argued that his life was devalued due to racism and ableism. The Texas Americans with Disabilities Action Planning Team (ADAPT) called for an investigation into Hickson’s death.

Families protested in Rockland County, New York, against state restrictions limiting visitations to their developmentally-disabled relatives in group homes out of coronavirus fears, a local CBS affiliate reported. Most of the demonstrators were the parents of minor children.

Advocates in Tennessee lobbied the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights to force the state to change its COVID-19 response plan. Health care workers can no longer prioritize younger patients without disabilities over older, disabled patients, Bloomberg Law reported. Conditions that allowed for health workers to exclude people with disabilities from care based on their diagnosis were also eliminated from the plan.

Last week, a disability rights group sued the New Hampshire state department, claiming that its absentee ballot system could hurt voters who are blind.

Those disputes and protests followed after another month of protesting — like that of hundreds of thousands of other Americans — against police brutality and discrimination, an issue that greatly impacts people with disabilities.

“Folks with non-apparent disabilities are especially vulnerable to police violence, especially if they’re racially marginalized,” said Reyma McDeid, co-chair of the National Council on Independent Living’s Anti-Racism and Equity Taskforce. “It impacts your ability to interact with a police officer.”

For instance, in 2018, Marcus-David Peters was shot by a Richmond, Virginia, police officer during an apparent psychiatric episode. In 2010, a Seattle police officer shot and killed a Native American man for not dropping his woodcarving knife — the man was partly deaf.

About one-third of people killed by the police have a mental or physical disability, McDeid said. A Washington Post tally found nearly a quarter of those shot and killed by police had a mental illness.

Six years ago, Dontre Hamilton, was one such person. Hamilton, who had schizophrenia, was shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer who had not received any specialized training on interacting with people with mental illness. After George Floyd’s death, people of color with disabilities were inspired to march for Hamilton and othersThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported


Antines Davis teaches a group of Milwaukee protesters how to sign Black Lives Matter in ASL


Atines Davis, who flew in from Maryland for the protest, taught the crowd how to sign “Black Lives Matter” in American Sign Language. 

“Sign His Name” instead of “Say His Name” broke out at a Washington, D.C., protest against police brutality organized by the National Alliance of Multicultural Disabled Advocates.

And in Delaware, protesters marched in June for Jeremy “Bam” McDole, a Black man in a wheelchair who was killed by police in 2015, who shot him within two seconds of asking him to drop his gun. 

Police are “deliberately obtuse in refusing to understand the danger that they place Black and brown and other multiply-marginalized disabled people in,” said Lydia X. Z. Brown, an adjunct lecturer in Disability Studies at Georgetown University. “Many of my friends and comrades in the Black disabled community, regardless of the type of disability, faced some of the most intense and horrific harassment from police.” 

Such experiences with police can  foster distrust, which can lead to underreporting crimes against people with disabilities.

‘That person is a target’

A 2019 study conducted by the anti-street harassment non-profit Stop Street Harassment also found that people with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault. People with disabilities were the victims of sexual or aggravated assault, robbery and rape at the twice the rate of people without disabilities, according to a 2017 summary released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

One in five surveyed believed their disability made them a target.

“Clearly people can tell by interacting with me or observing me that I’m not … normal by ableist definitions of normal, even if they wouldn’t know the specific language to use. But many people would think, ‘that person is a target,’” said Brown, who has autism and survived a near-sexual assault.

In a Washington, D.C., survey of people with disabilities who experienced harassment, only 12% said they filed a police report. Distrust of police was one reason why, according to a report by the D.C. Office of Human Rights. The office also found that people with disabilities are publicly targeted for harassment more often than any other marginalized group aside from immigrants. 

Noor Pervez, 24, who uses a wheelchair, says he has been physically harassed while waiting for the Metrobus in Washington.

“Out of nowhere, this lady comes up to me and starts hitting me with a pamphlet,” he said. The woman seemed agitated and muttered the word “wheelchair” while hitting him, Pervez added. No bystanders intervened.

Pervez chose to reach out to the anti-harassment nonprofit Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) instead of transit police. 

Attorney Albert Elia, who is blind, was harassed and threatened by a man for bumping into him while boarding a crowded Metro car with his service dog in 2018.

“I would accidentally bump into somebody and … they would not just get offended; they would shove me back. I have been pushed; I’ve been [punched], particularly on the Metro.” he said. “I would say that in the four years I lived in D.C., it happened half a dozen times.”

A commuter for over 20 years, Elia said his worst experiences with harassment occurred in D.C.

“Oftentimes, people with disabilities are harassed or mistreated, especially when trying to access transportation,” said Stephanie Franklin, the Office of Human Rights communications director. 

Because of this, some advocates were frustrated when Washington, D.C. passed a landmark anti-street harassment bill in 2018 without naming people with disabilities.

“It has symbolic importance, to name a particular community explicitly,” Brown said.

While it’s too late to amend the Street Harassment Prevention Act, an advisory committee is actively seeking a non-voting representative from the disabled community, Franklin said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if [City Council] and other people responsible for thinking through who is most vulnerable to street harassment aren’t thinking about marginalized disabled people,” Brown said. “They may associate disability only with white people who hold the most privilege and are not likely to be harassed.”

Meanwhile, implementing the act is taking longer than planned. The deadline to establish a reporting process, public awareness training and other suggested policies for the two-year-old law is September 30, but the City Council reorganized its priorities due to COVID-19. A representative for the Office of the Budget Director said $500,000 was allotted for the act, but funding may also be limited or delayed.

“We anticipate that, as the city continues to respond to the public health emergency, the implementation of the recommendations will be delayed until budgets for the rest of 2020 and fiscal year 2021 have been finalized and approved,” said Maya Vizvary, a program analyst on the Street Harassment Prevention Act.

Je’Kendria Trahan, CASS executive director, represents the nonprofit on the city council advisory committee as a non-voting member because she is not a D.C. resident.

Trahan, who is a Black person with a disability, says she prefers ride-sharing services to the Metro due to prior incidents of harassment and assault.

“We can pour resources into additional programming for communities … I think that’s the way to decrease the incidents of harassment,” Trahan said. “Or shift the culture around how we address harassment.” 


Jeanne Behm is deaf and comes from a mostly deaf family. She tells her story about growing up with the disability and the difficulties she overcame.


Read or Share this story: