Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

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How to Respond to Hate Violence?

In memory of Dorothy Dixon, Jennifer Daugherty, and countless others….


I can’t find adequate words to express my revulsion, outrage, sadness, and fear at reading about the brutal murder of Jennifer Daugherty, a Pennsylvania woman with an intellectual impairment. (Warning: That link will take you to a news article which includes sickening details that may disturb and trigger some readers.)

I’ve written before about hate crimes targeting people with disabilities, but not much. It’s one topic about which I feel inarticulate, often lacking in insights or ideas. Perhaps it’s because I really can’t get inside the mind or heart of someone who would commit such deliberate acts of torture against someone they perceive as “abnormal.” Perhaps I don’t even want to try. Also, hate crimes against disabled people have been rendered largely invisible in the media, so that any writer broaching this topic must push through several layers of disbelief. People literally doubt that such things happen. Or, they may express anger at the occasional incident, like this latest killing, but not be willing or able to see it as part of a larger system of oppression based on disability.

The six individuals alleged to have participated in this atrocity bear the biggest share of blame. I can only speculate that their actions arose out of some unimaginable combination of sadism, cowardice, fear of difference, deep discomfort with their own human vulnerability, and mob mentality.

This is by no means an isolated incident, however. And it didn’t happen in a vacuum. I would argue that social conditions helped make this crime possible. Aside from being outnumbered six-to-one, Ms. Daugherty had far less power than her perpetrators. Despite what sounds like a supportive family, she lived in a society that separates disabled people from their nondisabled peers — in school, in community groups, in “special” programs of all kinds. She may have had few opportunities to learn personal safety skills or self-defense. Many of her previous interactions with nondisabled people may have been characterized by prejudice, discomfort, rejection, and/or teasing, all based on the negative stereotypes perpetuated by media, and by widespread scorn for those labeled “retards.” So that by the time Ms. Daugherty became involved in a community center, and met some people who pretended to be friendly to her, she was probably so eager for connection that she failed to recognize, or overlooked, any warning signs. This cannot be blamed on her own personality, or on her cluelessness, or on her disability. Her history of segregation and of limited choices set her up for it.

It’s one thing to mourn this woman’s terrible death, and to analyze its roots. But I’m left wondering how else to respond. First, I call on all disabled women to join in expressing solidarity with Jennifer Daugherty, anger at her killers and at the social conditions that disempowered her, and determination to fight with all our sisters against oppression and violence.

Second, I invite all people who care about nonviolence and justice — feminists, human rights activists, and others — to connect the dots, to recognize this and other disability hate crimes as manifestations of serious power imbalances based on disability oppression.

Third, I call on the legal system to ensure equal treatment under the law for Ms. Daugherty. Don’t let society’s devaluation of disabled people follow her into death. Her so-called “vulnerability” is not the point; her minority status, targeted by the perpetrators, is the point. There should be no doubt that this is a hate crime. It should be prosecuted as such.

Fourth, I call on educators to instill in all their students the ability to celebrate all kinds of differences. Model respect and self-respect. Intervene in situations where children are bullying or shunning each other. Teach and support healthy friendships.

Finally, I call on journalists, writers, poets, and other cultural workers see and hear what is happening to too many members of our community of people with disabilities. Name these crimes. Honor those who are targeted, as valuable people whose lives mean something. Avoid clichés that emphasize the victims’ weakness. Focus instead on the reasons why this happens so often. Refuse to accept it.