Stop Pretending Disabled People Don’t Commit Crimes

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 15 2013 11:04 AM

The Disability Pedestal

We expected better from Oscar Pistorius because he’s disabled. We were wrong.

Oscar Pistorius of South Africa smiles in a press conference
Oscar Pistorius of South Africa smiles during a press conference ahead of the London 2012 Paralympic Games

Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Oscar Pistorius, the South African track star, has shot his girlfriend to death. The world is stunned. Other athletes have committed violent crimes, but Pistorius was supposed to be different. We expected better of him.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Why?

Pistorius seemed to personify only good things,” says one columnist. “His was a story of perseverance, taking chances, inclusion and giving hope to others, especially the disabled.” He was “an unprecedented champion for equality and disabled rights,” says another. He gave us “the feeling of watching humanity advance,” says a third. A fourth recalls: “He was throwing open the doors of sport to all. He was a symbol, a moment in history, a one-man parade of the human will.” There were stories about his guns and his rage, but we ignored them because “he was a hero and we wanted him to be perfect.” Michael Rosenberg of SI.com puts the question bluntly: “Were we shocked because he is a double-amputee? I think so.”

Bullseye. We expected better of Pistorius because he’s disabled. We confused the goodness of his story with good character. We put him on a pedestal. But equality isn’t about being special. It’s about being ordinary. People with disabilities aren’t above sin or crime. They’re just like the rest of us.

Nobody keeps records on how many people with physical impairments have committed crimes. But we do have prison data. In 2001, a Justice Department review of the best available survey, taken in 1997, found that 11 to 12 percent of state and federal inmates reported physical disabilities. Most of those conditions probably developed in jail. But even in the youngest age category—24 years old or less—5 percent of state prisoners and 2 percent of federal prisoners reported physical disabilities, which were distinguished in the questionnaire from mental, emotional, speech, learning, hearing, or visual difficulties. A survey of state officials, reported in 2003, found that the highest number of wheelchair-bound inmates reported by a single state was 974. The highest number of inmates with other physical mobility impairments was 1,949.

Scan the Internet, and you’ll find felons of all kinds. Blind white-collar criminals. Deaf blue-collar criminals. Paraplegics who have defrauded relatives, illegally possessed firearms, threatened police, and mugged people in broad daylight. Disability makes it harder to commit some crimes. But it doesn’t make the perpetrators nicer.

For some, disability is just another card they can play. In 2008, Joseph Taye, a driver with a suspended license, sped home from a bar in Delaware and fatally struck a firefighter who was helping an injured motorcyclist. Taye fled the scene. In court, he attributed his behavior to anger at his paralysis, and his lawyer argued that a life sentence would be unduly harsh because Taye wouldn’t be able to get therapy for his legs.

In 2009, Shayne Richard Sime of Christchurch, New Zealand, rolled out of his house in a wheelchair, fired more than 100 shots at his neighbors’ homes with three guns, and wounded a policeman. “I got heaps of ammo and I’ve got fucking enough guns to fucking waste you motherfuckers,” Sime told an officer who tried to reason with him. “Do you think I’m going to go to fucking jail in a wheelchair?”

Two years ago in Canada, Baljit Singh Buttar, a 35-year-old quadriplegic, pleaded guilty to a murder plot—orchestrated from his hospital bed—after a lifetime of bloody gang killings. Buttar told a reporter his confessions didn’t matter because he couldn’t be sent to jail due to his condition.

A month after Buttar’s plea, a Minnesota appeals court dismissed an appeal by James Adam Roth, a paraplegic who had used stun guns, drugs, and accomplices to capture, bind, and sexually abuse young women. Roth argued that the state couldn’t commit him to its sex offender program as a dangerous person, since he was “physically incapable of physically forcing anyone to do anything.”

Last year, John Christopher Champion, a Florida man, allegedly maneuvered his wheelchair around a convenience store counter, threatened the clerk with a knife, and ordered her to open the cash register. According to police, Champion told the clerk that the cops wouldn’t arrest a handicapped person.

These people aren’t bearing a cross. They’re jerking your chain. When criminals invoke disability as grounds for leniency, they insult every normal, law-abiding disabled person. “Why fucking live for other people when you’re having a fucked life? … I’m in a fucking chair,” Shayne Sime told the cop who tried to reason with him. The cop replied: “You’re not the only person that’s in a chair, Shayne.”

Justice is about more than compassion. It’s about the right to be judged on your own. You run your own race. You make your own decisions. Most people with prosthetic legs don’t shoot their lovers. Most guys who survive testicular cancer don’t run doping rings in the Tour de France. Something about beating cancer or overcoming a birth defect tugs at our hearts. It paralyzes our judgment. We don’t want to believe that people who have accomplished such things can do evil. Most don’t. But some do.

“Pistorius always wanted to compete with the best sprinters in the world,” writes Rosenberg. “We should have viewed him that way. We should have realized he was fundamentally an elite, hyper-competitive athlete. In that context, his apparent crime is not as surprising.”

Exactly. Pistorius deserves to be treated like anybody else. That’s what he taught us on the way up. It’s what he’s teaching us on the way down, too.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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