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The Importance of Opportunity for Those with Disabilities


With rumors, rhetoric and misinformation about crime statistics swirling and spreading throughout the country, it’s important to remember the insight that examining real statistics can shed on the world around us. One piece of information that sticks out sorely: those with intellectual or developmental disabilities are four to ten times more likely to be a victim of a crime in America. On top of that, there’s also an increased likelihood that those with a disability will commit such crimes.

The criminal justice system is not, according to the standards of many people, a forgiving and coddling experience for those unfortunate enough to have spent time enduring it.  For those who are living their lives with a disability, the justice system can present the first step in a vicious cycle of repeated crimes and a lack of direct, meaningful rehabilitation.

For being the nation that locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other, issues with the justice system prevail. Putting those with mental and developmental illnesses behind bars presents an obvious problem: if they don’t receive the particular care they need, they’re significantly more likely to cause problems within the prison. These problems lead to lengthy stays for what amounts to minor crimes, each new altercation driven by mental illness serving to extend the inmate’s stay.

Upon release, over half of people with mental illness will reoffend and find themselves facing another stay in prison.

Breaking that cycle requires two key ingredients: respect and opportunity. And it’s time we start providing them, unconditionally, to those who would benefit from additional care.

For just over eight years I’ve worked closely with people with disabilities–both adults and children. Predictably, behavior problems are common among those who are burdened with disabilities. Within the walls of a prison, behavior issues aren’t handled with the same care or individually-shaped treatments that they are elsewhere. In my position at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, we work to break the cycle that so many people with intellectual and emotional disabilities fall into. But we can’t do it alone.

Part of the responsibility of overcoming life with a disability falls on the shoulders of those who are living without one–that is, everyone else, including you. Getting involved in breaking this cycle starts with educating yourself. Take time to read the stories, the studies and the information that surrounds the vicious cycle spawned when a person with a disability is sentenced to prison. Then, take action.

Find a nonprofit in your area that caters to these needs and volunteer–give your time, your money, or anything else you can provide to help break down the barriers that those suffering from mental illness try so hard to break every day.

And then, lastly, open your mind up. Understand and exercise patience when interacting and working with people who have these disabilities. These people don’t want your pity, they want your respect, your understanding, and your support.