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Freddie Gray: Nearly Half of People Killed by Police are People with Disabilities

Important to Understand Significance that Gray’s Disability had in Leading to his Death

Washington, May 23 – As the verdict comes down on the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore, the first trial of his accused killers has come to an end. One of six officers charged in connection with the arrest and subsequent death of Gray last April was acquitted. However, more attention needs to be paid to the fact that Gray was an individual with a disability and the role disability played in his involvement with the justice system.

Freddie Gray had a developmental disability from being raised in a home surrounded by lead paint in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. Disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty. Poverty, itself, is linked to racial injustice. Racism can make it harder to escape poverty or receive necessary supports for disability. As a report by The Ruderman Family Foundation notes, a third to one-half of all people killed by police are people with disabilities and this is an important lens that cannot be forgotten when examining cases like Freddie Gray’s.

Headshot of Freddie Gray in a red t-shirt outside in front of homes

Freddie Gray

While we are still trying to understand the full ramifications of lead poisoning, advocates and studies say it can diminish cognitive function, increase aggression and ultimately exacerbate the cycle of poverty that is already exceedingly difficult to break. Gray’s death exemplifies the complexities of looking at the intersections of risk factors – including disability and racism. Unaddressed disability issues left him vulnerable to becoming trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline and criminalization.

Lead paint poisoning, like other environmental issues including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), can cause an inability to follow multi-step instructions. It is vital for children with these issues to receive single-step instructions and other accommodations until they can learn how to follow multi-step instructions. Early intervention, while brains are still literally shaping and can rewire, is key. That is because significant improvements in “executive function” and other abilities can be achieved. However, when such a disability is not properly diagnosed and addressed, as happens all too often in single parent, minority and other families, an outcome can be “unexpected behaviors” in school. This, as was the case with Mr. Gray, may lead to school suspensions, failure to complete high school and a greater risk of falling into the justice system.

Freddie Gray’s disability did not kill him. However, the lack of an early diagnosis and appropriate supports made it harder for him to complete school. Moreover, Gray’s death was not an isolated incident, as there are numerous public examples of a high profile death where disability was a factor. As recorded by historian David Perry and disability expert Lawrence Carter-Long in a white paper for The Ruderman Family Foundation, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Quintonio Legrier, Robert Ethan Saylor and many others whose stories caught national attention were people with disabilities. More recently, news broke about a young man with a psychiatric disability named Jamycheal Mitchell who starved to death in police custody.

Likewise, many children in Flint, Michigan are being diagnosed with a variety of intellectual and developmental disabilities due to lead poisoning in the water.

“Flint is a perfect storm of racism and classism coming together in an insidious storm to create and perpetuate ableism, racism, and classism,” blogger Cara Liebowitz wrote following a Democratic presidential primary debate in the city.

People with disabilities, especially minorities, are among the most vulnerable when it comes to poverty, exploitation, victimization and violence. We need more sustained analysis into ways structural and individual ableism leads to the victimization of vulnerable individuals.

We cannot fix these problems unless we confront all the forms of oppression that intersect to ruin lives, absorb vast sums of money and shatter dreams. Disability is a critical part of that equation.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. As an individual with an acquired invisible disability - Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy - she writes about the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. Appelbaum currently oversees RespectAbility’s outreach to Hollywood to promote positive, accurate, diverse and inclusive media portrayals on TV and in film. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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