LIFE ISSUES: by Paul RussellNews Weekly
Abuse of the disabled: the invisible epidemic
, September 28, 2013
“Violence against persons with disabilities is a frequently unrecognised and under-reported problem that has reached epidemic proportions in the United States” — from the website of the Disabled Persons Protection Commission, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
A recently published landmark report I received, entitled Abuse of People with Disabilities: Victims and Their Families Speak Out, didn’t fit any of those categories — it virtually jumped out and demanded attention.Many reports, surveys and commentaries find their way into my inbox on a daily basis. I guess it’s common for commentators on any issue to have to sift daily through reams of subject matter and decide what should be noted, what should be commented on and what needs to be left alone because of time constraints.
Produced by the Los Angeles-based non-profit educational body, the Spectrum Institute, it is a 45-page report on the 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities. It is a shocking indictment of the widespread and under-reported mistreatment of people with disabilities in a first-world, 21st-century nation such as the United States of America.
However, I wonder if the scale of the problem isn’t common across much of the Western world, including Australia.
The report says: “Some 7,289 people took the online survey during May through October 2012. Respondents lived in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“Most of the respondents had a direct connection with the disability experience, either having a disability themselves (20.2%) or having an immediate family member with a disability (47.4%).
“Some 2,560 respondents (35%) answered ‘yes’ to the following question: ‘Have you or your family member with a disability ever experienced abuse?’ These respondents were viewed as the ‘victim community’ and a data set was specifically created for them.”
The report added: “Nearly half of victims with disabilities did not report abuse to authorities. Most thought it would be futile to do so. For those who did report abuse, nearly 54% said that nothing happened. In fewer than 10% of reported cases was the perpetrator arrested.”
Some of the report’s 24 key findings are as follows:
1) Over 70% of people with disabilities who took the survey reported they had been victims of abuse.
2) More than 63% of parents and immediate family members reported that their loved one with a disability had experienced abuse.
3) Some disability types had a higher incidence of abuse than others. For example, 74.8% of people with mental health conditions reported they had been victims of abuse, while 67.1% of those with a speech disability, 66.5% of those with autism, 62.5% of those with an intellectual or developmental disability, and 55.2% of those with a mobility disability reported having experienced such abuse.
13) People with disabilities who were victims cited futility, fear and lack of information as reasons for not reporting. Some 58% believed that nothing would happen; 38% had been threatened or were afraid; 33% did not know how or where to report.
17) More than 73% of people with disabilities who took the survey reported they had been victims of bullying. Most of these victims had experienced bullying on multiple occasions, with 38% saying that their victimisation had lasted for years on end.
18) People with autism and people with mental health conditions were victims of bullying at a significantly higher rate than people with other types of disabilities. The following are the rates of bullying reported by various disability communities (people with disabilities and families): autism (77%), mental health (74.7%), speech (66.8%), intellectual/developmental disabilities (64.3%), and mobility (55%).
The report goes on to make suggestions to people with disabilities and their families, as well as to the agencies serving them, on how to go about reducing the risk of abuse.
It recommends: “The first step in risk reduction is to acknowledge that abuse does occur to children and adults with disabilities. If you have a disability, admit that someone may take advantage of you or hurt you — emotionally, physically, sexually or financially.
“If you have a family member with a disability, as hard as it may be to think about this, admit it — someone may abuse your loved one. If you are a provider of services to people with disabilities, you need to be aware that someone associated with your company or agency may abuse a client.
“The next step in risk reduction is to know who likely perpetrators might be. A person with a disability is more likely to be abused by a family member or someone in their daily routine than they are by a complete stranger.
“Perpetrators are often predators who misuse a position of trust or take advantage of a victim with actual or perceived vulnerabilities” (page 6).
On reading these wise words, it struck me immediately how similar this pattern of abuse is to that of elder abuse, which is also reaching epidemic proportions in the West.
Abuse by a family member or carer, abuse by someone in a position of trust, the perceived futility or fear of reporting — it’s a similar story.
When this U.S. report on the abuse of people with disabilities speaks of a “victim community” of people with “actual or perceived vulnerabilities”, we can readily understand what they mean, and are left to ponder how and why this tragedy can occur.
Able-bodied people can often take for granted their enjoyment of such things as freedom, autonomy and self-actualisation. But we should give far more thought to those many vulnerable people with disabilities for whom such lofty and noble pursuits require extra care, vigilance, support and encouragement.
Irish orator and politician John Philpot Curran said in 1790, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” We must remember, always, that a truly just society can be recognised by the way it cares for its most vulnerable people.
This historic report, as well as the reported high incidence of elder abuse, provides compelling reasons why we should never legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide. Every properly constituted parliamentary inquiry into euthanasia has been persuaded to reject it completely. The importance of resisting pleas to legalise “mercy-killing”, as it is euphemistically called, is if anything more urgent today than ever.
And just in case any reader is tempted to think I’m cynically using this U.S. report on human tragedy to further the argument against euthanasia, they’d be wrong.
The author’s son, Joseph Russell,
with a then aspiring Prime Minister.
This issue of protecting the disabled is personal, very personal. That’s why the thought of abandoning vulnerable people through legalising euthanasia infuriates me so. My wife Anne and I know that our son Joseph, who has Down syndrome, will always need support, and we do worry for his future. But the thought of misguided law-makers putting him at risk — no matter how small — would be unbearable.
Advocates for euthanasia often spout the autonomy line: “It’s my life, it’s my body. I should have the right to choose how and when I die.” When I hear these words, I genuinely wonder whether such people have ever considered anyone beyond themselves.
Get over it! Whether we like it or not, our lives are intertwined with those of others.
In the words of the great English poet, John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Paul Russell is founder and director of the Australian network, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide www.noeuthanasia.org.au, and vice-chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) International. He blogs at http://blog.noeuthanasia.org.au
Nora J. Baladerian, Thomas F. Coleman and Jim Stream, Abuse of People with Disabilities: Victims and Their Families Speak Out, a report on the 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities (Los Angeles: Spectrum Institute, 2013).
Paul Russell, “The ever-worsening problem of elder abuse”, News Weekly, December 24, 2011.
Paul Russell, “Vigilance needed to protect the vulnerable”, News Weekly, June 23, 2012.