As every man, woman and child over the age of six living in the United States must be all too aware, the latest courtroom drama to grip the nation has been the trial of George Zimmerman, which came to its conclusion this past weekend. Unlike many of our previous “trials of the century”, which usually feature lurid sexual misconduct, child murder, or the involvement of a celebrity, the Zimmerman trial focused attention on some of the most troubling fissures that threaten to fracture American society, including racial bias, the prevalence of handguns, and our well-earned paranoia regarding violent crime.
A prominent issue in the Zimmerman case was profiling, specifically racial profiling. But profiling can take many forms, and as a disabled person this aspect really struck home. More on this a bit later, but for the sake of international readers who may not know the specifics of the case, please allow me to provide a quick summary.
In February 2012, black teenager Trayvon Martin was walking back to his father’s fiancé’s townhouse at about 7 PM in the evening, after a trip to a nearby convenience store. The Florida community he was walking through had recently been the scene of several burglaries and home invasions. A white resident of the community, George Zimmerman, a volunteer in the neighborhood’s community watch program, saw Martin walking in the dark through a light drizzle. Mr. Zimmerman, who spotted Martin from his car, thought the recently turned 17-year-old looked suspicious and called local police dispatchers, who told him police were on their way and advised him not to follow Martin on foot, advice which Mr. Zimmerman, who was armed with a concealed handgun, ignored.
After following Martin for several minutes, an altercation broke out between the two subjects, during which Mr. Zimmerman suffered a broken nose and abrasions on the back of his head. According to most accounts of the struggle, including Mr. Zimmerman’s, Martin wound up straddling Zimmerman on the ground and was getting the better of the fight. Zimmerman said that at this point Martin saw the gun holstered on Zimmerman’s hip, and told Zimmerman that he was going to kill him. Zimmerman then unholstered his weapon and shot Martin at point-blank range through the heart. Trayvon Martin died within minutes.
Initially, local police declined to arrest George Zimmerman, saying that his actions were justified on the grounds of self-defense. After the case reached public attention and generated a national outcry, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. After a trial that lasted approximately 3 weeks, he was found not guilty, a verdict that has ignited heated debate and public protests throughout the nation.
Naturally, I have strong opinions about the Zimmerman case, but as I’ve largely tried to keep politics out of this blog, I’ll refrain from airing my opinions here. Instead, as I mentioned previously, I’d like to use this tragic incident as a catalyst to discuss the issue of profiling, the practice of making assumptions about a person’s character, intelligence, or intentions based solely on their appearance. Perhaps the only thing that seems certain about this case is that Zimmerman profiled Martin, assuming he was “up to no good” based solely on the youth’s appearance. Tragically, it turned out those assumptions were wrong, and ultimately resulted in the death of a 17-year-old who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, more correctly, in the right place at the wrong time.
Why discuss this on a blog devoted to issues associated with multiple sclerosis and disability? People with MS and other disabling illnesses who show the physical effects of their disease often find themselves the subjects of profiling, whether they walk unsteadily, use canes or walkers, or are reliant on wheelchairs. Assumptions are often made by members of the general public based solely on the appearance of the afflicted, and those assumptions can often multiply the pain and suffering caused by the disease itself.
There has long been stigma attached to physical disability; the severity of this stigma varies from culture to culture but certainly persists to this day even in more enlightened societies. I know many MSers with relatively mild disease who struggle mightily to keep their illness a secret in the workplace, for fear that knowledge of their ailment might derail their careers or even get them fired. Patients with more apparent manifestations of the MS, such as balance and gait issues, have found themselves accused of alcoholism or illicit drug use. Those of us who find ourselves in wheelchairs often also find ourselves ignored by the population at large, subject to ignorant or condescending comments, and sometimes even treated as complete imbeciles. Folks whose disease affects their speech are often automatically assumed to be suffering from mental retardation, the notion that a perfectly fine mind may be hidden behind their inability to enunciate never even occurring to many in the healthy population.
How can I be so sure of all of this? The answer is simple, and embarrassing. Back in my healthy days I was sometimes guilty of just such profiling, unconsciously making assumptions about the disabled based on preconceived notions that had no basis in reality. I clearly remember seething at the wheelchair reliant person who had the audacity to hold up my commute to work while the driver of the public bus I was on took the time to operate the vehicle’s wheelchair lift. How dare they travel during rush hour, didn’t they know that normal people need to get to work! Looking back, I cringe at the memory of my sometimes dumbing down my speech in the presence of people with physical disabilities, as if somebody possessed with faulty limbs was also automatically possessed with a deficient brain. Turns out the one with the deficient brain was me.
Even now, when I’m all too well versed in the trials and tribulations of the disabled, I sometimes find myself falling victim to my own subconscious preconceptions. A few years back I met a man who was active on one of the online MS forums in which I participate. In our written give-and-take on the Internet, I knew him to have a keen intellect – astute, sharp, and witty. When I finally met him in person at a large MS symposium I could barely disguise my shock when I found he could barely get a word out, his speech halting and slurred. Despite the fact that I knew that this man had a fine mind, I automatically found myself simplifying my vocabulary and talking in a louder voice, so strong and ingrained were my mistaken inclinations. I’m ashamed to admit that I was so disquieted by the situation that I cut our interaction short, behaving in a way I regret to this day.
George Zimmerman’s profiling of Trayvon Martin ultimately resulted in an innocent teenage boy’s death, an outcome that all can agree was tragic, whether or not they believe the jury’s verdict to be just. Though the profiling experienced by the sick and disabled isn’t likely to result in physical death, the injuries inflicted to sense of self and ego can at times seem more hurtful than a physical blow. The emotional maelstrom experienced by patients dealing with chronic disabling diseases is and of itself a difficult storm to weather, and the added indignities that are sometimes heaped upon them by an indifferent and ignorant public can multiply the emotional distress of such illnesses exponentially.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers when it comes to eradicating the problem of profiling, whether that profiling is based on race, gender, religion, or physical condition. As my own experiences illustrate, perhaps the first action we should take to eliminate the poisonous practice of profiling is to look within. An open mind and an open heart are tremendous benefits not only to the person who possesses them, but to all within their sphere of influence as well.