A few days ago news broke in the city of Toronto about two police officers, having stopped a car which contained three people, two of those were mother and daughter. The daughter had Down Syndrome. The police were caught on their own devises speaking of the woman with Down Syndrome as ‘disfigured,’ a ‘half person’ and they decided a code word for people like her would be ‘artistic.’ They thought this very funny.
I’ve been asked many times about my reaction to this after it was reported. I need to say that I’m surprised if anyone is surprised. Negative language about disabled people is rampant. Name-calling and belittling is a fairly common experience. I was more surprised at the ‘outrage’ expressed by everyone. Why? Because I find that this behaviour, if we are referring specifically about the language they used, isn’t a ‘police issue,’ bigotry towards people with disabilities is pandemic in its scope. I experience it on a near daily basis, so do others that I know.
In small bucolic towns, nestled in rural countrysides, I have done bullying and teasing workshops for people with intellectual disabilities. In those workshops they speak of the kinds of social violence that they experience: staring; name calling; pointing, laughing, shoving, theft, threats. Their experience of daily brutality has been disbelieved every time I report it, with the group’s permission, to the organizers of the event. Every. Time. “Not here,” and “not us.”
My first reaction was not surprise.
My second reaction was to the apology given by the chief of police. He did not apologize to the disability community. He went and spent two hours sitting with the woman who was the target of the venom and her family. He apologized there. And well he should have. Afterwards he would allow no pictures of the event, he said because he didn’t want this to be a photo-op, I wonder if he just didn’t want an official record of him having to humble himself to apologize to a woman with Down Syndrome.
What was missing?
Where is the apology to people with intellectual disabilities? Where is the apology to all people with disabilities in the city of Toronto? Where is the full and public denouncement of this behaviour? This happened primarily, I understand, to the woman at the centre of this. But to think that it didn’t also happen to every person with a disability, intellectual or otherwise, that it didn’t happen to every family member or every caregiver of a person with a disability is insulting.
The police and people with disabilities also have a rocky history. We have also a need to develop dialogue and trust with an organization that says it’s here to protect and serve … yet we know that all organizations that set out to protect and serve people with disabilities will, unless the agency intentionally works to stop it, inevitably foster abuse and disrespect.
I see no intention here. I hear no words of apology. I hear nothing. It’s as people with a disability as a community is yet to be recognized and respected. It’s as if we don’t matter when it comes to public discourse or public apology.
Well, we do exist.
And we were hurt.
All of us who face this as a daily basis and all of us who want to believe that the police would take crimes against us seriously, we were hurt. We were made to feel more alone. We were made to feel that those charged to protect and serve are those we have to fear and avoid.
I teach abuse prevention training and responding to bullying training for people with disabilities. In those I have always taught people to seek out the police if they are fearful of danger or if they want to report abuse.
Should I continue?
Is that a safe thing to do?
This is the question I ask the Toronto’s Chief of Police.