Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Use The Disability Card – Get Out Of Jail Free

I just read about a wheelchair user who played the "disability card" to get out of jail. I have many problems with what is reported in that news article. If someone is guilty of crimes, they should be appropriately punished.

Of course, the question of what is "appropriate" or not could be debated. Let’s say for the purpose of this post that getting off "scot-free" appears to be inapropriate.

The story "Wheelchair-bound man released from jail on hardship plea" describes how a Clarence Bear, a Canadian wheelchair user, was facing charges for several violent domestic-related crimes, and how his attorney successfully pleaded to get him out of the remand centre he was in because it proved too hard on him.

A Question Of Wording And Perceptions.

The first thing that strikes me, before even reading the article, is the expression "wheelchair bound" used in the title of the article. This sets the scene quite well to portray the guy as helpless. I’ve already discussed the issues about that term elsewhere on this blog.

This was reinforced by Bear himself when he said "How could I do anything, I’m in a wheelchair?".

Mark Zupan‘s friends refer to him as an asshole in the movie Murderball. They say the famous wheelchair rugby player was an asshole before he became paralysed and it hasn’t changed since his injury. Sounds to me like Mr Bear is a bit of an asshole, regardless of his use of a wheelchair.

Jail Not Wheelchair Friendly

One of the major issue cited is that the remand centre is small and not wheelchair friendly. Specifically, major issues meeting Bear’s "bathroom needs".

Another issue cited is that pain medication was refused.

Bear wasn’t able to appear in front of the judge via video link – the door to the video room at the remand centre was too narrow. He had to be wheeled through the court’s main doors and stay out of the dock, also because the door is too narrow.

These seem poor reasons to let someone go free. Even Bear’s attorney suggested that instead of that particular remand centre Bear could be placed in a larger jail that could cater for the needs a bit better.

Repeated Offenses

Right, so this guy hasn’t been proven guilty – he’s presumed innocent. But he has had several charges, over a period of time, lodged against him:

  • 1st arrest in October 2010: Throwing a steak knife at his girlfriend.
  • 2nd arrest that same month: Throwing a jar of urine at his girlfriend, grabbing her by the hair and punching her.
  • 3rd arrest in December 2010: Attempted assault of his girlfriend, and fleeing the scene.

He was apparently drunk on all occasions, and swallowed unspecified pills on the last occasion.

He used the defense he didn’t do anything and *couldn’t* because he was in a wheelchair. Hmmmm.

There was a court order preventing him to be anywhere near his girlfriend, which was broken.

I wonder if other people who’ve repeatedly been arrested for violent behaviour would be treated so lightly? Especially when they’ve previously been released and breached the condition of their release. Ok, I get it, the particular remand centre where the guy was kept at wasn’t accessible. But that’s an easy fix – change the centre, put him up somewhere else. And if that doesn’t work, place the guy on house arrest – ankle bracelet & all. Get the guy in a alcohol abuse rehab programme. DO something, but don’t just release him in the "wilds"

A Jury Of His Peers

But then, perhaps Bear couldn’t get a fair hearing in front of a jury of his peers. Perhaps the lack of accessibility of the remand centre extends into the entire courthouse and they have a situation like we have where I live – the courtroom and system told me I was excused from jury duty because I use a wheelchair. In theory, someone should be able to get judged by their peers. Does it mean that if there are no people with disabilities on the jury, someone with a disability doesn’t get a fair go? I don’t know. This ties in to the idea that people in wheelchairs are quite helpless. How many wheelchair users play the disability card to get out of jury duty?

The Disability Card

The expression "Playing the disability card" is a way to describe how some people use their disability to get something they want. I don’t like the concept. I think it’s wrong – we can’t argue against discrimination yet use the very condition that triggers discrimination to get something beneficial. As Peter White says in Dangerous Card:

… it’s a dangerous game because it feeds into the very ignorance about disability we claim to hate.

People who use the fact they use a wheelchair to get out of jury duty are partly responsible for me being turned away from being able to do my civic duty, as I wrote about in the post about being excused from jury duty.

Laurence Bear, and his lawyer, are playing the "poor disabled person" card. He couldn’t possibly have done it, because he’s a wheelchair user. His experience in jail is harder than anyone else’s, because he’s in a wheelchair. The judge bought it, hook line and sinker.

I get so annoyed when that happens. There are many people with disabilities who are advocating and educating the public, trying to change society’s vastly negative perception of people with disabilities. When these kind of things happen, it’s like their entire work was just flushed down the (non-accessible) drain!

2 thoughts on “Use The Disability Card – Get Out Of Jail Free

  1. Great post Nic. I agree with your views about access to the justice system and being held accountable for bad behaviour. I feel quite strongly about domestic and partner violence too.
    I have never served on a jury. Called up twice and on both occasions my boss got me excused cos of too much work. I wanted to push the issue because at that time blind people, and I assume VI people as well weren’t allowed to serve.

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