Monday, January 9, 2017

The torture of a teen with special needs: How we can fight the hate

By now, you've likely heard that four suspects in Chicago were charged in the torture of the 18 year old with intellectual disability. One assailant livestreamed part of what happened on Facebook. They were charged with hate crime, because of comments they made about the victim's race and mental capacity, along with kidnapping, aggravated battery and aggravated unlawful restraint.

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?


  1. "If we don't who will?" Exactly. It may not seem like much but we can all do what you outlined. It doesn't take much to change someone's mind. Have you discussed the incident with Sabrina?

    1. I waited till today to see if she would bring it up, and when she didn't I asked if she'd heard about it. She hadn't. Her school had discussed the Ft. Lauderdale shooting today; I wished they had thought this was worthy of discussion as well. I told her the gist of what had happened, and asked her why she thought people would do such a thing. She said, "Because people don't think people with special needs are regular people." We talked about what we could do and she wants to make some sort of video for awareness. I'm not sure what that means but we'll see. Next month, she's going for training so she can volunteer at The Friendship Circle, which Max has long attended; it offers programs for youth with special needs.

  2. My son is only 4 and I think about this all the time as school age nears. As a high school teacher I see all the bullying, particularly those on the autism spectrum. Kids can be cruel but it's often the embarrassment and ignorance of the parents in the face of disability that leads to this kind of bullying. It has to start with the parents. They are going to have to be brave, be self-aware, and be willing to learn so that their children can.

    1. I couldn't agree more: It has to start with the parents.

  3. What scares me most is that my son (14) is completely non-verbal! I need to have a conversation with his school and school board about making sure our kids know who their "safe" people are and how to tell someone when something is wrong.

    1. Yes. Janet, does he use a speech app? There can be emergency buttons programmed into that.

  4. Too bad Merryl Streep didn't mention any of these thugs during here speech last night. If people think she really cares about people with disabilities, she would have brought this incident up along with calling out Donald Trump

    1. Justin, I know where you are coming from but there is only so much she could have noted in her speech—which was primarily an anti-Trump rant. I

  5. I love all of your suggestions about teachable moments and conversations to be started from situations that come up. I asked my husband, a 44 year power chair user, how he felt about the Trader Joe incident, because as a part-time power chair user it didn't bother me. Coming from a family that has all relied on powered mobility, we have no problem when people point out or even laugh as we blow past them in high gear. Actually, it's kind of one of the few times where your disability is a perk. I get lots of comments because I drive very fast and it's usually a great door opener for increasing awareness and most people mean it as a compliment. We do realize there are situations when it can be derogatory, especially if someone with CP can't drive a straight line, but in our experience those instances are very rare. Just our personal experience.

    1. Valerie, thanks to you and Doug for weighing in. It's good to hear that this sort of thing doesn't get to either of you and you can laugh it off. In this case it wasn't a door-opener situation because the guy was literally laughing at this man behind his back.

    2. It is probably a sad statement about us, trying to see the best or having developed leather skin. ;-) And, likely very different for Doug and me since we are highly verbal and easily able to advocate for ourselves, unlike our non-verbal girls. Thanks for always advocating and educating when you can. Hope Sabrina does make a video!

  6. I read on one report that he had mental illness and ADD. Either way good points

  7. I don't know if this was a race thing or a disability thing or both, but it certainly was atrocious.


Thanks for sharing!