When Eric Garner’s killers were not charged, I wrote a piece for CNN about the intersection of disability and race in his and other deaths at the hands of law enforcement.
Ever since I heard that Freddie Gray asked for an inhaler before the police closed the door on the van and began give him his (alleged) rough ride, I’ve been pretty sure that the same lens applies to his death.
That sentiment was confirmed by an excellent piece on Gray’s lead paint poisoning a few weeks ago in the Washington Post.
“There was a big hole when you go up the steps,” Gray recalled in 2009. “There was a couple of walls that wasn’t painted all the way, peeled. . . . And like the windows, paint was peeling off the windows.”
Before Freddie Gray was injured in police custody last month, before he died and this city was plunged into rioting, his life was defined by failures in the classroom, run-ins with the law and an inability to focus on anything for very long.
Many of those problems began when he was a child and living in this house, according to a 2008 lead-poisoning lawsuit filed by Gray and his siblings against the property owner. The suit resulted in an undisclosed settlement.
Reports of Gray’s history with lead come at a time when the city and nation are still trying to understand the full ramifications of lead poisoning. Advocates and studies say it can diminish cognitive function, increase aggression and ultimately exacerbate the cycle of poverty that is already exceedingly difficult to break.
It is nonetheless hard to know whether Gray’s problems were exclusively borne of lead poisoning or were the result of other socioeconomic factors as well. From birth, his was a life of intractable poverty that would have been challenging to overcome.
It’s impossible to point to a single factor and say – lead paint! Or – poverty! Or – racism! That’s why intersectionality matters. We don’t have to, and shouldn’t, because that’s not how humans work. Each of us is shaped by intersecting factors, and for Gray, those intersections proved fatal.
“Jesus,” Dan Levy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the effects of lead poisoning on youths, gasped when told of Gray’s levels. “The fact that Mr. Gray had these high levels of lead in all likelihood affected his ability to think and to self-regulate and profoundly affected his cognitive ability to process information.”
Levy added, “And the real tragedy of lead is that the damage it does is irreparable.”
By the time Gray and his family moved into the hovel on North Carey Street, which became the subject of the subsequent litigation, the amount of lead in his system had fallen. But he and his sisters began developing problems.
His sister, Fredericka, developed issues with aggression, Gray said in a 2009 deposition. “She still got problems like that,” he said. “She still do. She always was the aggressive one. She liked to fight all the time and all of that.”
Equally troubling was the children’s performance in the classroom. The twins and an older sister were diagnosed with either ADHD or attention-deficit disorder ADD, and Fredericka’s academic career was “riddled with suspensions,” court records say.
It wasn’t any better for Freddie, who never graduated high school and was often absent from his studies because of truancy or suspensions. “All the schools that I went to, I was in special education,” Gray said.
Today in the Baltimore Sun, there’s a letter Zosia Zaks, who is the manager of programs and education at Towson University’s Hussman Center for Adults with Autism and also teaches disability studies courses. Zaks writes:
Why is no one discussing Freddie Gray’s disabilities? Historically, disabled persons have had a higher risk for ineffective interactions with law enforcement personnel. Recent examples in our geographic area include the cases of Nellie Latson and Robert Saylor. This is not to discount factors of racism at all. But disability discrimination or “ableism” is the most hidden “ism” of all and our society is just not dealing with it. In Freddie Gray’s case, racial discrimination is compounded by disability discrimination and when we ignore this fact, any solution to the problem of police bias and brutality will be incomplete.
The police must be trained in how to respond to individuals with developmental disabilities of all races. This does not mean we make excuses for the actions of adults with disabilities — visible or invisible. All adults must be held to the same standards of the law. What is does mean is that people who communicate, think, learn and emote differently must have the accommodations, supports and guidance needed to level the playing field. This also means that civil workers in a city like Baltimore in which hundreds of children have sustained lead poisoning must receive training to ensure public safety for all citizens.
We have been promising persons with disabilities the right to full community integration for decades. This promise rings hollow when society refuses to analyze and to discuss openly how we collectively and personally respond to the diversity of disability.
Readers of this blog will know how wholeheartedly I back Zaks’ analysis here. It’s vital to include the disability lens in our understanding both of this tragedy and how to reduce the risk of these incidents in the future.