As horrific as this is, as distraught as it may make you feel, there is something you can do to help stop hate toward people with special needs.
The teen was supposed to spend New Year's Eve with one of the four, an acquaintance from school, reports say; he picked him up in a stolen van at McDonald's. They ended up driving around for a couple of days, then went to an apartment where the torture took place.
I haven't watched the video. I've read that the boy's mouth was duct-taped shut, his wrists were bound, the arms of his sweatshirt were slashed, he was punched and slapped and stomped on the head and his hair was cut with a knife until his scalp bled. A second video that surfaced on Twitter showed the suspects forcing the victim to drink out of a toilet. After several hours, he escaped. Police found him wandering the streets in a daze, bloody and battered.
He is with his parents, and expected to recover. Who knows what kind of lasting impact this will have on his psyche.
Oh, how sickening this is.
And how our hearts ache for that boy and his family.
And how we wish for the people who committed these atrocities to get their due. There is no excuse for doing what they did to any person, let alone one with a reduced capacity to defend himself.
And how this makes us fear for our children if you have a child with special needs. Because we see in that boy our children, more defenseless than others. We fear that evil like this could come our children's way, and as much as we do our best to protect them we might not be there.
While the story will soon fade away in most people's minds, it will remain strong in ours, the nightmare that happened. We can't do anything to help that boy, although I hope the support people have shown in social media is of some comfort to the family.
But we can do something about the misunderstanding and ignorance that is often at the heart of hate.
If you have a child who's mentioned that something bad happened to a boy with special needs, or a teen who knows the story or who's seen the video, you could have an age-appropriate discussion about the incident and ask questions that can lead to an illuminating conversation such as: Why do you think anyone would bully/hurt a boy who has special needs? How do you think this made the boy feel? What can you do if you ever see someone doing something wrong to a person with disabilities?
We can open people's eyes to the bigger problem when they discuss this story. "Sadly, people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities are all too routinely victims of exploitation, misunderstanding and even violence," Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver said in a statement. "Taunting and bullying remain an epidemic for children with intellectual disabilities (ID). Violence against people with ID is usually based on misunderstanding and ignorance and is all too often hidden." People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes as those without disabilities, per a Justice Department Reported cited in a New York Times article on the topic. Advocates say the figure is much higher, as these sorts of crimes may not even be reported—especially when a family member or caretaker is the abuser. (CNN also has a good article about this.)
We can help others see the child, not just the disability, as parents of children with special needs regularly do. We tell the kid who has just asked, "Why doesn't he talk?" that our child talks in his own way, and we encourage him to engage with our child. We tell the teen behind the counter at the ice-cream store, "Ask him what he wants!" We inform the lady in the park who has cocked her head sideways upon sight of our child and muttered "Aww, poor guy!" not to feel sorry because our child is as capable of enjoying life as any child. Perhaps you think these encounters don't add up to much, but when lots of us do this, it matters. Also: If we don't, who will?
We can teach children who don't have special needs about ones who do, enabling them to understand that even if they look differently, talk differently, move differently or act differently, they are still children. Here are some talking points.
We can encourage people to use respectful language. Margaret Carlson's powerful op-ed in the New York Times about her older brother with ID notes that he was called a "retard" and that "for some comedians, it was a laugh line" but that "you don't hear it much anymore." Actually, people—especially teens—continue to use the word as slang for pathetic and stupid, unintentionally perpetuating negative stereotypes of people with ID. Some comedians continue to use the word derogatorily, as this one did in a loathsome skit that was eventually removed from the cable special it was in. What to say when you hear someone use that word? Here are some ideas.
We can speak up when children or adults with disability are treated unfairly or ridiculed. I'm not saying jump in and defend adults who are in the throes of defending themselves. I'm not saying you've got Meryl Streep powers to call out a future president on his imitation of a disabled reporter during your Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. But, sadly, there's no lack of everyday sort of situations.
Last week, I was in the parking lot of Trader Joe's and there was a man in an electric wheelchair in front of me also heading toward the entrance. I watched as a middle-aged man walking with his wife burst into laughter after the man passed by and turned to watch him enter the store.
"He's just a guy in a wheelchair—what's so funny?" I blurted.
"That guy was going 55 miles per hour," the man said. He he he he. "He almost hit us!" He he he he.
"He wasn't going so fast," I said. "Think how you'd feel if a stranger cracked up at the sight of you."
It wasn't much, just a quick exchange. Maybe that guy will rethink his perception of a person moving along in a wheelchair as comical, maybe he won't.
But I was glad I'd spoken up.
If we don't, who will?