“The Institution Yet to Come”: Analyzing Incarceration Through a Disability Lens

Ben-Moshe, Liat

While such comparisons help crystallize the coalition building potential between those placed in institutions and in prisons, they also obscure the important ways in which one identity or formof oppression is used to discredit the other. In an essay in Justice Matters, Bird (2006) posits the important connections she finds between the two populations but cautions: ‘‘In 1995 I began sharing my story publicly of how being paralyzed in a drunk driving crash has changed my life. I’ll never forget the first time that someone said to me ‘but you got a life sentence sitting in that wheelchair and all he got was a year in a restitution center!?’’’ (Bird 2006). Such comparisons seem to create an equation of disability with punishment, which is not a new phenomenon. One of the earliest sources of stigmatization of disability can be found in religious or magical thinking that assumed that disability is a result of punishment from the gods or a result of witchcraft. In addition, if one listens to thenarratives of disabled people who were segregated in institutions, another obvious connection emerges in which many describe their time there as a form of incarceration. Self advocates (activists with intellectual disability labels) compare institutions to living in prisons, and characterize their existence there as incarceration or being jailed while committing no apparent crime (Hayden, Lakin and Taylor 1995/6; Hayden 1997). Such statements, combined with McBride Johnson’s epigraph and Bird’s narrative above, help crystallize the vital connections between prisoners and people with disabilities, butmay also pit one group against the other and ignore both the differences and intersections between the twopopulations. I argue that today one cannot analyze the forces of incarceration without having a disability lens.