It’s common––almost trite––to hear sentiments like, “Our culture needs to have a conversation about mental health” after an atrocity is committed. It is usually said with the assumption that the person who committed said atrocity is mentally ill and that by dealing with mental illness, we can protect “normal” people from the wrath of the “crazies.” We do not hear the issue of mental illness addressed as much, however, when another party harms a mentally ill or disabled person.
That does not fit into the narrative in which mental illnesses and disabilities are solely medical problems that have no social component. The symptoms of these conditions aren’t the only things that harm the people who have them. Ableism, the institutionalized society-wide oppression of people with disabilities––which covers physical and mental disorders, illnesses and impairments––has severe detrimental effects on those suffering.
Dallas police officers shot and killed Jason Harrison last year, a 38-year-old black man with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. They were called to help take him to the hospital, but instead fatally shot him in front of his own mother. Those of us who do not have to deal with ableism and racial profiling may be unaware of the complete dehumanization that can occur when police officers encounter those who are victims to these issues.
Considering recent events such as the killing of Michael Brown and the failure to indict his assailant former Ferguson Police Department officer Darren Wilson, it is impossible to ignore the issue of racial profiling by police officers. Ableism offers another axis on which people are dehumanized and viewed as a threat during their interactions with the police.
This is not an isolated incident whatsoever—there is a long and terrible history of ableism carried out by police officers in dangerous and deadly ways against those with a variety of conditions. There was Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill black man who was killed in April by a police officer who was not charged. There was Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome killed by off-duty deputies—who were not indicted—for entering a movie theater without paying. There was Edward Miller, a deaf man killed by police officers because he couldn’t hear the demands they were giving him.
The lack of value given to disabled individuals could be the reason that several of these police officers did not face punishment for their actions. Whether it is irrationally treating mentally ill people as a threat that justifies deadly force or the ignorance in interacting with disabled people in a way that disregards their needs, ableism in the police force has proven to be deadly.
One theory of ableism that could be discursively productive in dealing with cases of police violence against the mentally ill and disabled is the social model of disability. This idea is best described as viewing the oppression of disabled people as a result of the structure of society, rather than disabled people’s physical or mental impairments.
Prejudice toward the disabled and the stigma against disability and mental illness are the focus of this view, rather than cure for the conditions themselves. While there is a huge variety in the experiences of those who are disabled or who have a mental illness, it is hard to think that the negative stigma does not apply in the cases of police violence. We can try whatever remedy we would like on people like Jason Harrison, but none of that matters if they are killed by ableists.