Invisible disabilities, epilepsy, police brutality and race

I was doing some internet research for a story the other night and it lead me down a very disturbing rabbit hole. I’m fairly used to research turning into these crazy chases where reality slaps me in the face with some uncomfortable truths. But this one in particular was very uncomfortable.

Since I started reading up and learning about learning disabilities, invisible disabilities and mental illness, I’ve been well acquainted with how poorly people with these issues can be treated by those in authority. I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself.

So I decided to write a socially conscious story for an anthology on a topic I was familiar with, which was Sensory Integration Disorder and Autism. I find myself often having to explain what sensory overload is and just how profoundly affected people can be by it. I deal with some level of it myself, though I know few and far between are the people who believe me. Invisible, emotional and sensory issues are easy to brush aside if you are able to appear normal outwardly.

But I have become self-aware enough to know, with out a doubt, that I perceive the world differently, and not in just an ‘everyone is different’ sort of way.  Things bother me that most people are able to ignore or don’t even notice. I have issues with things, irrational fears and worries that go well beyond the norm. But I tamp these fears and issues down, I hide them, I repress them, and I cover them up like the shameful, disgusting failings they are perceived to be.

The moment I let these weaknesses slip and I know someone has seen me for what I am, I am on the defense. I can become hostile. Because I have experienced often enough, the way these differences and perceived weaknesses can be exploited. There’s no easier way to climb socially than to step on someone else. Weak people make great stepping stones for ego.

But I digress. Well, only a little.

During my research into mental disabilities, I found story after story about young men being detained or treated brutally by authorities simply because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, and because they were unable to communicate in the expected manner, they were punished.

I read so many stories about young adults, out minding their own business, who were reported as suspicious. When they were approached by police and unable to comply in what was considered a socially acceptable manner, or took too long to respond, the situation escalated. Unable to process what was going on, what was expected of them, the person with the disability would react by lashing out at the person they perceived as attacking them. The end result in these scenarios is often brutal and tragic.

Even more disturbing was what I found when I started looking into the effects of using a Taser. Specifically, I was interested in the effect of a Taser on someone with epilepsy, since so often, people on the spectrum have comorbidities, such as epilepsy. Instead, I found an alarming number of instances where someone having a seizure was Tased. A person having a seizure often acts confused, fearful, irrational, and doesn’t actually appear to be having seizure. Grand Mal seizures are not the only type of seizure people face.

People in this state are usually harmless and simply need to be left alone. Restraining them can make them more agitated. And yet, time and time again, these people have been dealt with aggressively, even being Tased multiple times.

I came across an even more disturbing fact as I read these stories. The people treated most brutally while they were having a medical emergency were almost always people of color. I found stories of a man, of unspecified ethnicity being Tased multiple times while having a seizure, and a girl, only fourteen being Tased in the head while having a seizure who appeared to be white. But the stories where a young person was Tased anywhere between three and eleven times, mocked, threatened and even killed, were almost always a person of color.

There was no reason for it. There is no defense of “Well, he shouldn’t have been doing something illegal” or “She shouldn’t have resisted”, to explain the brutality. There is also no excuse of the media only sharing stories for the sensationalism.

I was seeking out very specific stories, hard to find stories about people with epilepsy and the use of Tasers. In most of these stories, the ethnicity of the people was not immediately mentioned, it was not the focus. Only as I sought out the whys and hows did I notice that the most brutally treated victims were often people of color. I find it hard to believe that people of color have such a disproportionately higher rate of epilepsy that the stories would be skewed this way.

And even sadder yet, was when I mentioned my findings to some of my friends, I was met with disbelief, defensiveness, rationalization.

In my mind, it is so very very clear. People of color, most especially black people, are treated with a brutality that those of us who are privileged do not, cannot, and often do not want to understand.

I did not seek out this revelation. I was not researching in order to write a story about social justice with race in mind. My focus was disability, and I was slapped in the face with racial discrimination and police brutality.

In my story, I only hinted at my character’s possible ethnic heritage. Despite my research, I felt uncomfortable addressing the plight of those who are not my own. I know Hispanic/Latino culture, have married into a Hispanic family, and so feel I can speak in my writing, to some extent on their behalf. I am painfully, uncomfortably aware that by doing so, I am taking the safe route.

I am barely strong enough to stand up for myself. But that doesn’t mean I’m not aware. That I don’t see what’s going on, that the injustices don’t make me sick when I come across them. I admit it, though. I am weak, I am afraid, and the battle for social equality and awareness is exhausting and sometimes dangerous. So for now, awareness, understanding and a quiet voice of reason from time to time will have to be my contribution to this battle.

***

After I wrote this blog, a video surfaced of a girl getting tossed around like a rag doll by security at her school. It was brutal and horrible. Even more upsetting to me was the number of people commenting to defend the officer and claim she deserved it. It’s heart breaking to me.

Then, one of my favorite sites, Everyday Feminism posted a very good article about white privilege. I only recently came to terms with, and still have to check my own white privilege. Before reading this article, please note the very important preface on that article.

“And of course, even if you have white privilege, you can be oppressed in other ways. Classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression can create negative interactions with police for you, too. Your white privilege doesn’t erase your oppression.”

Everyday Feminism’s article on police and race:
20 Examples That Prove White Privilege Protects White People From the Police

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