Gun Violence and #DisabilityTwitter

I’ll have a piece later today from CNN on the shooting in San Bernardino, CA. I’ve written about gun violence for them before.

I’m sitting in a small square room, cluttered with books and papers, at the end of a short dead-end corridor. I’m a history professor at a small university, sitting in my office alone, hearing the news that 800 miles away, a Delta State University history professor has been shot and killed in his office. It’s all too easy to picture being trapped behind my own desk, unable to escape, to dodge, to do anything but plead.

Empathy is a powerful tool, and that will be very much the theme of my piece this morning.

In the meantime, though, I want to reflect a bit on watching the San Bernardino story unfold. I was sitting in my office working on a white paper on media coverage of police violence and disability (coming soon, with my favorite co-writer), when the news broke of the killing. Soon, we found out that the killing took place at a disability services center, and my personal network of disability rights activists, disabled individuals, parents, caregivers, service providers, and so much more encapsulated by #DisabilityTwitter fell apart emotionally.

We shared pictures, tweets, details, experiences with centers like that, debated whether disabled individuals would or wouldn’t be present at the office, and explored the Inland Resource Center’s social media feeds. We braced for the worst. We were relieved, if guiltily, when it became clear that the worst wasn’t in fact the case.

You see, we’re ready for someone to target disabled people with violence. We’re expecting it. We’re expecting it because it’s constantly happening, even though most people are unaware. We see, every day, the ways in which disabled people are marginalized, dehumanized, and excluded. We see the violence everywhere – domestic, sexual, carceral, law enforcement, legal, representational, and more. And we know that although disabled people are vastly more likely to be victims of violence than non-disabled people, that the media and politicians are far too likely to treat disability as a threat, to treat mental illness as the cause of gun violence (rather than, say, easy access to firearms), and to stigmatize rather than assist.

I saw that on the news. The local ABC affiliate was asking relatives of survivors about their family members, then pushing them to speculate about “mental patients” who might be responsible. We now know, of course, that wasn’t the case, and the target was county workers, killed by one of their own, but the stigma was deployed and ready to go.

I’m glad the target wasn’t disabled children or service providers, even though that fact makes this act of violence no less tragic. But the violence against people with disabilities is ongoing. We’re all too ready to be triggered. It’s a learned reaction.

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