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Home: Articles: Miscellaneous: On Abuse and Power

The Journey of Disability -- On Abuse and Power

A call to halt the abuse of the disabled

by Morgan Brown

There is much ongoing debate about how to deal with the abuse people with disabilities and other "vulnerable populations" often experience. I believe that we need to change attitudes and laws which reinforce or treat people with disabilities in ways that most people would never want to be treated or regarded themselves.

Wide spread social and cultural forces continue to make people with disabilities particularly vulnerable to abuse. The underlying forces fostering abuse include:

  • The devaluing of individuals or groups of people because their perceived uniqueness, differences, abilities, appearance, state of mind or being, or talents are considered to be less than or inferior to what is accepted as "normal" or common to one's own understanding, experience, family, culture, or peer group.
  • The destructive assumption that these differences are bad and that therefore the person is bad or defective and needs to be fixed, treated, segregated, pitied, feared, ridiculed, and then integrated, mainstreamed, and so on, but still not accepted fully as they truly are unless they imitate enough of what is considered to be respectable or normal.
  • The attitude that people with disabilities are not really people with abilities, dignity, pride, dreams, and needs who should be valued and respected as much as anyone else, but are instead people with lesser abilities and worth.
  • The assumption that people with disabilities, especially those whose needs require them to sometimes ask for assistance, are incompetent to direct their lives and provide for themselves in any way.
  • The tendency to view people with disabilities who are feeling helpless and vulnerable in a tough situation or circumstance, as being at fault: viewing their feelings and experiences as symptoms of something wrong in them... rather than relating to them as a person who is feeling helpless or vulnerable, or experiencing a helpless or vulnerable moment, who may need compassion, warmth, support, and services of an empowering nature.
  • The habit of thinking that it is acceptable to exclude a person with a disability from any and all decisions in and about their life that concern them, or to otherwise limit what decisions they may make for themselves concerning any aspect of their lives.
  • The belief that others know better than a person with a disability knows what is best for themselves, what their needs are, and how these needs should then be fulfilled.
  • The message that a person should be valued not for who they are or for the very fact that they exist, but only for what they can do compared to what others can do, their net worth, or what family or side of the tracks they are from.

If we all stop treating people with disabilities like helpless or vulnerable people, not only will they begin to feel differently about themselves, but others will begin to as well; especially anyone who is prone to take advantage of a person with a disability who believes they are weak, less than, worthless, vulnerable, defenseless, and helpless.

Easy or simple? Certainly not. Nonetheless, this is what I believe it will come down to if we are really truly serious about breaking the cycle of abuse in our systems of care and in our society as a whole. Will this end all abuse? I doubt that; but this is an excellent place to start on that most noblest of goals.

In closing, I must strongly urge that when a person with a disability comes forward with a compliant of abuse: believe them and take their word for it with as much credibility as you would give to anyone without a disability.

There must be zero tolerance for abuse of people whether they are young, old, male, female, or whether they may have a disability or not; this standard should apply in all settings; and, any programs found to foster such abuse, including any institutions large or small, inpatient or outpatient, or wherever, should be closed and banned from operating in our society.

Sadly, this is not the case now. Too often those who should be setting and enforcing these high standards against abuse limit their responsibility with the excuse or defense that "We don't live in a perfect world." Well, it is because we don't live in a perfect world that we must adopt the attitudes and changes suggested above and do so now! As two young friends of mine, Kay and Dan, like to often say, "Duh! Yeah!!!".

Reprinted with permission from "The Independent", A Vermont Publication For Elders And People With Disabilities, Volume 7; Number 6, Page 14, November-December, 1998, Editor: Deborah Lisi-Baker

Send subscriptions, submissions and editorial correspondence to: Editor, The Independent, R R 1 Box 1436, Waterbury, VT 05676
[Subscriptions for one year (hardcopy) Bimonthly (six per year): $5.00 (U.S. Currency) via check or money order]
E-mail: lisi@together.net

Modified December 25, 2002

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