Individuals with disabilities face harassment, intimidation, and violence driven by prejudice and hatred, although by far the majority of these crimes never reach the attention of law enforcement officials or are recognized as hate crimes.
Federal law requires the compilation of statistics on disability bias crimes, but does not provide criminal penalties for such crimes—an omission that would be remedied by the enactment of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (see below).
Thirty states and the District of Columbia have statutes expressly addressing crimes motivated by disability bias. Other states, notably Ohio and Michigan, are now considering draft legislation to this effect, in response in part to public outrage over a recent series of horrifying crimes victimizing people with disabilities. In Ohio, a bill was introduced in June 2008 that would grant people with disabilities protection under Ohio’s hate crime law. The bill’s sponsor said the initiative was prompted by a February attack on a high school student with learning disabilities.
The statistics of the FBI’s annual hate crime report over recent years identify hate crimes based on disability bias as being no more than a small fraction of total hate crimes, with the percentage of disability bias incidents representing less than 1 percent of the total. In the FBI’s 2006 hate crime reporting, there were 95 victims of disability bias crimes in 79 incidents. Of these, 21 were victims of “antiphysical” disability bias, and 74 of “antimental” disability bias.
Importantly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in a November 2005 report on hate crimes reported by victims in the National Crime Victimization Survey found that victims of 11.2 percent of recorded incidents reported disability bias as a motive. This is a significantly greater percentage of disability bias incidents than is typically reported in FBI data based on police reports.
The small numbers reported by the FBI are generally considered more a reflection of the relative invisibility of most hate crimes against disabled people than a true reflection of their occurrence. At the same time, some of the most horrific incidents of hate crimes targeting the disabled periodically appear in headlines of major newspapers, in particular when torture, sexual abuse, and murder are motivated by disability bias.
A May 2007 report by the National Council on Disability and other disability rights organizations, considering the data available on the crime victimization of people with disabilities, found that “persons with disabilities are victimized at much higher rates” than the general population.
In the groundbreaking and influential report on hate crime in the United States in 2004, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund identified crimes motivated by bias toward people with mental or physical disabilities as statistically the least likely to be reported. The report noted that:
The victim may be ashamed, afraid of retaliation, or afraid of not being believed. The victim may be reliant on a caregiver or other third party to report the crime, who in fact never does so. Or the crime may be reported, but there may be no reporting of the victim’s disability, especially where the victim has an invisible disability that they themselves do not divulge.
The reporting gap is also tied to popular perception of harassment, intimidation, and violence towards disabled persons leading to such crimes being “written off as abuse, or little more than teasing or pranks” and never directed to the criminal justice system. Even very serious crimes—including rape, assault, and vandalism—are too frequently labeled as “abuse.”
In July 2007, 42 national and state organizations of the National Disability Rights Network wrote to members of Congress urging the enactment of Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act. The measure “would grant agencies the authority to investigate and prosecute federal crimes based on the victim’s disability, whether real or perceived, and would authorize funding to states to help with the prosecution of Hate Crimes.”
The coalition noted that bias-motivated crimes against people with disabilities too often “have gone unreported and unprosecuted.” This was in part a consequence of “the special problems associated with investigating and prosecuting hate violence against someone with a disability” making the availability of federal resources for state and local authorities all that much more important to ensure that justice prevails.”
A series of incidents targeting individuals with disabilities involving extreme violence—including long periods of captivity, torture and sexual humiliation—reached the attention of the public in 2007. In April 2007, a civil jury in Linden, Texas, awarded close to $9 million in damages to Billy Ray Johnson, a man with a learning disability who was severely injured in an assault in September 2003, suffering brain damage that left him requiring constant care. Johnson, who was then 42, had been lured to a party where he was taunted, knocked unconscious, put into the back of a pickup truck, and taken to be dumped at a roadside near a garbage dump. Two defendants were acquitted by a local jury of felony charges, and were convicted on lesser charges with a recommended sentence of probation. Two others were permitted to plead guilty to an “injury to a disabled individual by omission” charge, and testified against the co-accused. Three of the accused were sentenced to 30 days in the county jail; the fourth was sentenced to 60 days.
In February 2008, six men in Alton, Illinois were arrested and charged with the torture and murder of Dorothy Dixon, 29, who was mentally disabled. The crimes were reported to have occurred between December 1, 2007, and January 31, 2008, when the victim was found dead in her apartment. In what a police spokesman described as “torturous treatment,” she was reportedly beaten, scalded, shot at with a pellet gun, and humiliated by being forced to run naked. She was beaten to death, and charges brought included “first-degree murder and intentional homicide of Dixon’s unborn child, heinous battery, aggravated battery and unlawful restraint.”
Some of the most serious attacks on people with disabilities were carried out by young people against other young people who were particularly vulnerable to abuse. On February 23, two teenagers broke into the home of 18-year-old Ashley Clark in Cincinnati, Ohio, who was described by authorities as disabled, and subjected her to horrifying abuse for six hours. Clark was subsequently found by police officers and her mother, bound and gagged, and bleeding from a series of wounds: “she had severe bruising on her hands, arms and face and was bleeding from her face and forehead.” The two suspects in the case, aged 16 and 17, were initially charged as juveniles with “felony counts of aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, assault and vandalism,” although prosecutors were to seek the permission of the court for their trial as adults. Ohio hate crime laws do not provide for enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by disability bias.