Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Violence and Down Syndrome: Victim Blaming

One of my concerns with the language about disability and violence, whether domestic, in institutions, or in public, is an easy tendency to link the violent outcome to the disability, rather than focusing on the perpetrator of the violence. Such rhetoric doesn't tend, or in I think intend, to excuse the violence, but it does suggest that disability is a mitigating circumstance. 

And I'm sure sometimes it is. Sometimes, people who would not otherwise be violent, find themselves unable to respond to a particularly difficult situation, so act badly. But that's an explanation, not a mitigation.

On Monday, a story came up about a boy with Down Syndrome who was dragged across the floor by a principal of a school for children with special needs in Florida.

Here's what happened:
“The child was defiant,” said Lt. Adam Militello with the Neptune Beach Police Department. “He was not getting up from the ground and the principal pulled him across the floor, just under 30 feet, some of it unfortunately over concrete and over two door thresholds.”
Cesar Suarez remembers picking his child up from school that day. And he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“You could imagine, when I saw his hand like that and his rib cage I said ‘Jesus Christ this is criminal,’” Cesar Suarez said. “‘What did you do to my baby?’ The only thing she could say is ‘I’m deeply sorry.’”
He says New Leaf Principal, Ronda McDonald, has apologized several times, sending cards and emails. 
Here's what I think happened - I think McDonald just snapped. She was frustrated at the boy who wouldn't get up, and she lost it. I think she's deeply ashamed.

I think she and the district will be sued.

I think she should be charged with child abuse (click to the original link and see the picture/video).

I think she should lose her job. 

I'm sorry about all three of these things. As a parent, I know what it's like to be so frustrated that you can feel the anger emotions roaring through your body. It happens to me. Sometimes I yell. I'm not proud of those times. Sometimes I just walk away and breathe for a few moments. I'm very proud of those times. Getting frustrated is normal. Getting physical is criminal.

But earlier in the article is a line that concerns me. It's paraphrasing the grandmother. It reads: "She said that as a child with Down Syndrome, he sometimes throws himself to the ground and refuses to get up."

I read this sentence as explanatory, and I don't blame the grandmother, but the journalist for writing it this way. It suggests that because he has DS, he throws himself to the ground and refuses to get up. My son does this. It's a passive resistance strategy learned by kids with limited verbal skills. My problem is that the piece links this behavior to the violent response by the principal, as if that explains it (if not forgives it).

In fact, the real issue here is not the flinging to the ground. The real issue is communication. Both of my kids sometimes fling themselves to the ground and refuse to get up, but with my daughter, I know she understands me when I verbally engage. I don't know if my son understands me, so I have to engage with words, tone, and touch - sometimes soft, and sometimes, yes, I pick him up (if say it's in the middle of the street - which has happened). I'm just concerned with this language that makes disability causal.


Many of the reports on Ethan Saylor, especially in the first few months, had this kind of language - so that's the stakes. Reporting and statements from organizations linked his broken throat to his Down syndrome. Such language implied that Ethan died not because of police brutality, but because the police did everything right and his Down Syndrome asphyxiated him. That's not what the pathology seemed to show. That kind of thinking has led to a lack of investigation, a lack of justice.

Finally - Is this another example of the cult of compliance? The principal, authority figure, is being defied, so she decides instead of investing patience in the situation, she'll just react physically. It's the same pattern as in all the cases of police violence against people with disability that I've been writing about for the last six months.

What do you think?

P.S. This event, I think, shows the limitations of awareness. The principal was "aware." She ran a special-needs school!

4 comments:

  1. My son has Ds and has done the flopping on the floor thing at school in the past. At 14, he's mostly over it, but there were years where much of his learning came while prone under his desk. This was not the ideal situation, of course, but unless he was in danger, his teachers ignored it. I would have understood if this principal had hoisted him up and moved him out of harms way. But there was no reason to drag him anywhere other than her own frustration. And kids are frustrating. All kids are frustrating. Saying that Ds had anything to do with it is like saying "Well, I hurt the baby because she cried". Kids are stubborn, babies cry. Violence should never be then answer to those issues.

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    1. Right. I agree with everything here. The collapse and refusal to move is a typical passive resistance strategy for someone with limited verbal ability (or learned as a child even when verbal skills advance) - that behavior doesn't explain the violent response.

      I was thinking of the "Baby cried" analogy too. We're on the same page.

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  2. I can't help but feel that there is a pattern of people considering a disabled person's body less... sacrosanct, maybe, than a non-disabled person's body. I read about the universal experience that disabled people have in which people touch them, their devices (like a wheelchair), or move them without permission or legitimate reason. In all these cases, the message seems to be that disability makes you a non-person. If you are useful or compliant, then fine. If not, then your body is forfeit.

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    1. You're right and that's a smart lens through which to read this event. The disabled body as object, not person.

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