Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Newfoundland Youth with Disability Beaten by Group of Teens - How BillJohnston Misses the Point

Today we have a story from Canada...Newfoundland, specifically, which is the province in which I was born (I don't remember much  about it, as I was pretty young when we moved). But that's another story. This story is about an assault of a person with disabilities that went on last week-end, and I'd like to thank Paige Fougere and Patti Sampson of Easter Seals Camp Tidnish in Nova Scotia for bringing it to my attention.

The reports involve a 24-year-old man in the town of Mount Pearl (see the map of the St. John's area to the right), with undisclosed physical disabilities. One article had some comments from people who claimed to know the young man, saying that he has cognitive disabilities as well, but I found no media confirmation that he has cognitive disabilities. The young man was in a mall, going to see a movie, when he was lured outside, off into a wooded area. 3 boys and 2 girls, all between the ages of 14 and 17 assaulted him, robbed him and left him. The young man managed to walk to a convenience store after the attack, where a woman who is being called "the Good Samaritan" and the store employees called the police and the hospital.  The young man has been released from the hospital, and the 5 teenagers have been charged. There didn't appear to be any personal connection between the young man and the teens, but the attack did appear to be planned.

I am very, very glad that the young man's injuries weren't serious, and that the attackers were apprehended quickly. The whole thing brings to mind other stories of people from "undesirable" groups being lured to an attack where the outcome was much worse, such as Matthew Shepard.

However, after reading the articles about this story, and particularly after watching the press conference that Royal Newfoundland Constabulary chief Bill Johnston held on Monday, I am disturbed. I am disturbed.

"Powerless", says Bill Johnston

I am disturbed that Bill Johnston said that the young man, as a person with physical disabilities. was "really powerless". This isn't true, Bill Johnston,  and it's a terrible message to put out to the public.

Yes, once he was out in the forest and facing five attackers, the young man had no control over the situation. I submit that very few people facing five attackers have much control or personal power in a situation where they face five attackers, whether they have disabilities or not. But (and this should in no way be taken to imply that I'm blaming the young man for what happened, because he is not responsible for the actions of these youth), he had a choice of whether or not not he was going to follow these youth into the forest. And if he didn't recognize that there was potential danger inherent in that situation, in this day and age, then someone failed him in basic safety education that's owed to everyone in general and to people with disabilities in particular. It's a harsh fact of life that people with with disabilities are targets for this sort of thing, and they need to be educated about how to keep themselves safe. So if people in this man's life want to call him powerless, they need to look at how they potentially contributed to that.

Also, a powerless man wouldn't have had the presence of mind and the strength of will to pick himself up after a violent assault and get himself to safety. Give this man some credit, Bill Johnston.

Bill Johnston Thanks the World

I'm also disturbed that Bill Johnston appears to believe that everyone involved in helping out with this case needs to be strongly praised for their stepping in and thanked repeatedly - as if they went way above the call of civic (and in the police's case, professional) duty by taking the time to help a person with disabilities in distress.

Over the course of the ten minute press conference, Bill Johnston makes it a point to thank the "Good Samaritan" and the people in the store four times for stepping in and helping the young man. He points out twice that it took the police less than 48 hours to get the teens into custody, and thanks them three times for the hard work that they put into resolving the case quickly and bringing peace to the family.

News flash - helping a person with disabilities who wanders into a store and a appears to be bleeding from a beating doesn't make someone a hero. It makes them someone who does the right thing when someone who's bleeding from the head wanders into a store and appears to be bleeding from a beating. The police should be working hard to quickly apprehend the people responsible for hurting that person because that's their job, not because the person has disabilities.

Personally, I can't imagine anything that'd make me feel worse had I gone through this than being subjected to the idea, from the chief of police, that I should feel especially grateful for receiving the help that I did, given that I'm a person with disabilities.


Not that these "appalling" (Bill Johnston said it, and don't get me wrong, I agree...but but but...) sorts of crimes don't need prompt attention, or that it's not a good thing that people in towns watch out for people with disabilities. I know that people with intellectual disabilities that I've supported in my small town have people watching out for them, and I appreciate that. But 5 teens ganging up to beat, rob, and leave someone bleeding in the woods is an appalling crime that merits quick action on the police's part no matter who it happens to. I'd like to think that Bill Johnston feels the same way.

Shouldn't we be just be looking out for each other in general?  Is that such an outdated notion?

This is a story that, for once, I'm sorry has been made out to be totally about disability. I think it misses the point.

What do you think?

Bill Johnston talking to the press:


  1. Absolutely right, Sarah! Every attack on any human warrants an outcry and outrage; it's not an outdated notion. I just think that disabled people are more trusting that most and land themselves in places where the "terrorists" of our world prey. To do nothing renders any victim to an abstraction, rage is warranted and justified in every case. Love the piece...