Places we don’t care for disabled people

Listen to this post: 

Big warning. If you continue with this post, you will read about or listen to descriptions of violence and abuse against people with disabilities. Continue with discretion.

A recent article out of Washington state asks “Is it cheaper to care for developmentally disabled adults in institutional settings or in community based settings?” You’ll never get a straight answer because of hidden costs (building repairs), wage differences (unionized workers versus non-unionized workers), and so many other little pieces it makes your head spin. Questions around costs of “caring for the disabled” have been ablaze for ages, with a big explosion when the ADA first passed. No! It will cost too much to bring our buildings up to new code. No! It will cost too much to have this special stuff set up when hardly anyone will ever use it. No! Disabled people are expensive. Ever notice how rarely you encounter the voices of disabled people in these debates? I notice. I wonder about it. They’re out there, but they’re much harder to find.

While we’re busy blaming disabled people for how expensive it is to accommodate them and to deal with all their allegedly fraudulent claims for benefits, do you know about Safety Net? They were a payee service that managed, sorry, “managed” government benefits money for disabled clients found to not be able to manage the money themselves. Safety Net made off with $1.4 million of that government money. Guess who has to pay out so that the real recipients can eventually get their benefits? You and me, the taxpayers. Because Social Security Administration is required by law to get the money to the recipients somehow. I don’t find uproars about systematic abuse at the white color level like this in mainstream media the way I do find all sorts of claims that individuals with disabilities are lazy moochers.

And while we’re handily distracted by discussions of cost, investigative reporters at Reveal created this frightening piece on abuse at neurorehabilitation facilities called “A Mountain of Misconduct: Treating Disabilities with No Accountability.” This article contains both audio reporting and a transcript. Please note, there are some errors in the transcript. I read it as I listened. They’re only typos that don’t affect the accuracy of the investigative reporting.

Sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse, isolation, people with only a one-week orientation and no clinical training providing services. A facility being shut down because of abuse and violations only to reopen in the same location with the same executive and managerial staff but with a different name. I can’t tell what was worse in listening to and reading this report: the descriptions of the violence or the final segment. In the final part, a reporter talks to someone who runs one of these places. When asked about abuse and fraud, he conveniently changes the topic to weekend homes and apple orchards, and then plays audio of his mother singing a Christmas season tune. She does have a lovely voice. But what that has to do with mismanaging care, creating and destroying medical records at will, and keeping fraudulent businesses open just to keep them open, I have no idea. The fact that this distraction felt relevant to the interviewee, Joe Brennick, speaks volumes to me.

I often come across responses like “what have we come to?” and “how did we get here?” So a final note in this post: this stuff is not new. This is the stuff of our colonial history in the U.S. and the immigration policies we created back in the days of Ellis Island to weed out people whose nationalities our government found distasteful. We called them too physically challenged or feeble-minded so we didn’t have to let them in. Our nation’s history is one of testing, forcibly sterilizing, abusing, segregating, and blaming disabled people. These stories? The oldest stories we have in U.S. disability history. This whole thing where the disability community is given space in the media, education, and to craft and shape legislation, that’s the new stuff. But it’s the stuff we simply have to keep fostering so that non-disabled business owners unlearn the practices of making a living off the backs of the disability community, warehousing my community, abusing my community, and saying that my community didn’t have much potential to reach for anyway, because they are the most vulnerable, so why worry about it?

DHS doesn’t have the shiniest record of quickly addressing, fining, or closing down companies that provide for disabled adults or children with violations. If you’re aware of abuse, fraud, exploitation, or neglect at a facility in your area, please contact your local newspaper or news channel and get an investigative journalist in there. You can also try reaching out to your state’s long-term care ombudsman or a Citizen Advocacy Group.

We say that we value people with disabilities. We say that they’re so brave and courageous and inspiring for the things that they can accomplish. But when we look at how this history of abuse and segregation really hasn’t gone away, I think that shows pretty clearly what our nation’s priorities are when it comes to whether or not we value disabled people.