It's worse than I thought.
The hatred against people with intellectual disabilities.
Three cases in point.
In January a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome suffocated to death in a movie theatre in Frederick, Maryland when he was handcuffed and pushed to the ground by three county sheriff deputies who were working extra hours as mall security.
Robert Ethan Saylor—known as Ethan—had just seen "Zero Dark Thirty" and was angry that he couldn't see the movie again. His worker couldn't convince him to leave so she went to get the car.
When I wrote about the incident in April, I assumed that the deputy called to remove Saylor didn't know how to "read" his refusal to get up.
A report released Monday shows the sheriff was not in the dark.
According to the report, Saylor's 18-year-old worker had returned, and told the sheriff that Saylor had Down syndrome; that he was angry because he didn't want to go home and would likely swear if spoken to; and that "he will freak out" if touched (he had sensory issues). "Please don't touch him," she said.
She asked the deputy "to wait it out" she wrote in her statement.
"Next thing I know, there are I think three or four cops holding Ethan, trying to put him in handcuffs."
Saylor was 5 foot 6, unarmed and almost 300 pounds. As he screamed and swore and cried for his mother, they pulled him down an exit ramp and pushed him to the ground. Some reports said they piled on top of him.
"One customer told police an officer had his knee on Saylor's lower back while the other deputies held Saylor's shoulders." Within a couple of minutes he was unresponsive. The officers rolled him over, undid the three sets of handcuffs they'd applied, and began chest compressions. He never regained consciousness.
Remember. This man lost his life over a $10 movie ticket.
The death was ruled a homicide: the coroner found signs that Saylor was lying in a position in which he couldn't breathe (positional asphyxia). His larynx was fractured and he had blood in his lungs.
I think stereotypes about Down syndrome—about people with intellectual disability being less than human—fed fear in the deputies, prompting their heavy-handed response. There's something about seeing our own vulnerability in people with mental disabilities that we can't stand, something we have to stamp down.
Why did the other 21 patrons not speak up, rush to Saylor's aid?
Why did a grand jury decide no criminal charges were needed?
Why did the deputies' attorney say the officers "did what was necessary."
Why was there relative silence from media, human rights groups—even disability organizations?
Why, given that Saylor was a regular customer, did the theatre call security in the first place?
I think it had something to do with those deeply embedded biases carried in our culture that devalue people with intellectual disabilities. That disdain for people who are slow to pick things up, a disdain we were all raised on, continue to be raised on. That negative bias—at an unconscious and automatic level—that French researchers identified in adults who outwardly said they accepted children with Down syndrome.
"We were born in weakness and we will die in weakness," humanist Jean Vanier told me, but our culture's brain elite doesn't want to be reminded of this. Its members are too busy pretending otherwise.
Second case in point.
Drake, in a new song, pairs autism with intellectual disability as the ultimate put-down: "I’m artistic, you ni**as is autistic, retarded."
Ironically, instead of acknowledging that some people with autism have intellectual disability, and asserting the inherent value of ALL people with autism, ALL people, regardless of IQ, Autism Speaks posted this response: "These lyrics are offensive and perpetuate negative stereotypes. There are many inspiring individuals with autism and other disabilities who have achieved great success across a variety of artforms, including music."
Yes, there are many artists who have autism (some of whom have intellectual disability). There are also many people with autism who have intellectual disability and don't have an exceptional talent—artistic or otherwise—that can be sold in the marketplace.
Are they any less human?
It seems to me that in the same way that people with physical disabilities tend to distance themselves from people with intellectual disabilities, many within the autism community want to create an autism "brand" that excludes certain kinds of brain differences.
When I read about the concept of neurodiversity, I don't hear it applied to people with autism and low intelligence. I hear it applied to people with autism who have atypical, off-the-charts intelligence in an area that's conventionally valued. In other words, I hear people talk about the value of brain difference when it manifests itself in a way that can be valued commercially.
We value brain diversity, but only so far as it allows you to "do something" that can be bought and sold.
Is that a flexible way of thinking? Or is it another form of "brainism?"
Some of the greatest stigma comes from the medical profession. At a Montreal Children's Hospital conference on the ethics of care for disabled children, a neonatologist made this admission: “There is a feeling among my colleagues—an unspoken and probably unconscious bias—between physical and mental disability. Sometimes neonatologists think if you're not perfect mentally, you're better off dead."
So why, then, do people with intellectual disabilities mean the world to their families?
"As I walked up our driveway hours before he died, I never thought that it would be the last time I would hear 'Emmy’s back!' shouted with so much enthusiasm it came through the closed windows," writes Emma Saylor, Ethan's sister, in We need answers in my brother's death. "Never again will I be hugged so tightly that my feet are lifted off the floor. And on my wedding day, I will only dream of what it would have been like to see the joy on my brother’s face as he and my father walked me down the aisle, the way Ethan had talked about since we were children."