Criminalising disability, and Black youth

Many nondisabled people in the United States are surprised to learn that law enforcement have become the first line of mental health response in many communities, a situation with serious implications. It can lead to death for mentally ill people when ill-prepared police officers respond to crises, but it also effectively criminalises disability, sending people into the criminal justice system instead of down the path to treatment, an especially serious problem for disabled people of colour, who are more likely to be disabled, and less likely to have access to private resources to manage their impairments, which leaves them at the mercy of the public system.

What even fewer are aware of is the fact that this is exacerbated for disabled youth. Do you think that disabled youth — especially those with severe mental illness and behavioural impairments — somehow get a magical ticket into care? No. The answer is no. Instead they, like adults, are shunted into the criminal justice system, with parents at times told that surrendering their children to the state is the best way to help them access treatment — because there is no private support for them.

This is something that will get worse under the current administration. It is also something that never gets discussed when nondisabled people are screaming about mental health services, especially with respect to the canard of only discussing these issues when they want to leverage mentally ill people in gun control arguments. This country, despite parity laws and tireless activism, is a bad place to be mentally ill at any age. It is a really bad place to be a mentally ill child, because children are subject to the same terrible system that entraps adults and deprives them of opportunities — because if you spend your childhood in the system, you’re not getting and education or access to advocacy to help you build a better life as an adult. You’re. Just. Trapped.

This is a situation that is really exacerbated for youth of colour, perhaps unsurprisingly. Again, they’re more likely to have disabilities, including severe mental illness, but they’re living in an environment where they are less likely to get access to care. Their parents can’t afford it. Medical racism creates discriminatory situations that deprive them of access to care. Their communities don’t have good mental health and other care resources because those tend to be concentrated in middle class white communities.

I often talk about these things in abstract, but I’d like to bring this home with an actual case, in Florida, where a disabled teen is trapped in the justice system thanks to the terrible mental health options in this country. He needs intensive inpatient treatment to help him learn how to manage his mental illness effectively. Instead, he was stuck in a juvenile detention centre because of ‘maladaptive behaviour.’ He’s stuck there because while the state acknowledges that he needs treatment, not incarceration, the state lacks sufficient facilities to help him, and his parents cannot afford the private route, which costs tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the specifics of treatment and where patients go.

This may be presented as a tragedy of disability — look at the poor disabled youth, stuck in jail. But it’s really a tragedy of society. We as a society decided to create and perpetuate mental health disparities that make it hard for people to get early intervention and treatment, especially in the case of people with developmental impairments, like this young man. We made that. We also shrunk the number of accessible facilities that could provide him with care so he could develop the skills to become independent or semi-independent, living safely in his community.

We chose to perpetuate the racial problems that keep a young Black man behind bars instead of getting treatment. This isn’t just about disability but also about how race has become ensnared in the situation, dictating the services he has access to and the way he’s being treated. When white youth end up in the prison system due to lack of resources, there’s outrage. When it’s Black youth, it’s much more difficult to find and tell their stories — this gets passed off as unfortunate or a bad way to deal with delinquency when it is part of a set of disablist structures that destroy Black lives.

In theory, he should be able to access services that are available in the state. In practice, he’s been effectively locked out with a series of behavioural reports and evaluations that paint a dangerous, violent picture — thereby allowing agencies to decide to refuse to give him a bed. These are racially loaded documents, reflecting a fear and hatred of Black bodies, and yet there are no measures to correct for this. It’s just accepted that of course he must be too dangerous for most facilities to handle, that the only option is jail.

Disability is often represented, as in the image at the head of this very article, with white faces. In the case of children, it’s tragedised with white children — there’s a desire to evoke a sensation of innocence and injustice and a struggle for fair treatment. But children of colour, especially Black children, are shunted to the background. When we look at school suspension rates, for example, a very specific racialised story emerges, with Black disabled children more likely to be suspended or expelled than any other group. But you’ll hear that ‘disabled students’ are targeted for suspension, without a deeper look at the details. Or you’ll find people talking about ‘children of colour’ but not probing into disability, and how it interacts with suspension rates.

These cases really highlight the fact that disability is criminalised, but also that disability plays into the criminalisation of Black bodies, and this is something that should not be elided.

Image: lafleur, Flickr