People with Disabilities & the Debate over Guns

In a recent issue of Teen Vogue, journalist S.E. Smith explores the frequent exclusion of people with disabilities from the gun control debate in the United States.In a recent issue of Teen Vogue, journalist S.E. Smith explores the frequent exclusion of people with disabilities from the gun control debate in the United States.

I found Smith’s piece as I searched for news on this topic, having read that a Texas chapter of ADAPT is surveying its members to learn how many have disabilities that resulted from a gunshot.

Both Smith and ADAPT organizer Bob Kafka note that discussions of gun violence in the United States tend to focus on people who were killed. Yet, they point out, most victims of gun violence actually survive – fully 70 percent, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

These survivors often experience permanent disabilities, including paralysis, limb loss, and brain injuries. Obviously, this is a group of people with a lot to contribute to the gun debate.

For many, their experiences also gave them a powerful motivation to take part in one of the many marches demanding gun control that hundreds of thousands of Americans participated in this spring. Yet, according to Smith, many people with disabilities “couldn’t attend due to inaccessible routes, lack of seating, no sign language interpretation, and other access barriers.” While March for Our Lives organizers in some places – notably Salt Lake City, Utah and Oakland, California – proactively created policies to ensure their marches were inclusive of people with disabilities, these were the exception.

This lack of inclusion, Smith believes, not only “cut disabled people off from their own communities” but contributed to keeping gun violence survivors and the disability community out of public consciousness, muting their voices in the gun debate. And while, she writes, “the disability community often encounters barriers to inclusion in social activism,” when it comes to gun-related activism this exclusion is “particularly troubling because of the intersections between the experience of gun violence and disability.”

ADAPT’s Kafka notes that the disability community includes people with diverse points of view about guns and gun laws, a point also made by a recent interview with author Susan Nelson, a Texas native who grew up around guns and who supports gun ownership, despite having been the victim of gun violence that left her temporarily unable to walk and with a permanent brain injury.

“I am not against guns,” Nelson told NPR, “and I don’t know that everyone who gets shot is going to turn against guns.”

Kafka agrees. “We have people on both sides of the issue,” he says. “There are probably NRA members in the disability community.”

It’s about becoming more visible

ADAPT’s purpose in surveying members is to gather information that can be used to educate lawmakers and strengthen the group’s authority in testifying on behalf of its members about gun legislation. It isn’t necessarily to build the movement for gun control – although that could certainly be one result – it’s really to bring the voices of people whose disabilities were caused by gun violence into the debate. Like Smith, Kafka believes these victims are currently invisible.

“The media loves to focus on how many people died,” he told NPR, but I’ve never seen where they follow somebody’s rehab.

And while mass shootings get the lion’s share of attention, the fact is that “there are many more people who become disabled because of day-to-day gun violence in major cities and never get called by a reporter,” a point made by Noam Ostrander, associate professor and chair of the Department of Social Work at DePaul University in Chicago.

Ostrander has extensive experience working with gang members who became paralyzed as the result of being shot. In addition to pointing out the exclusion of this population in public debate, he believes the public is generally unaware of the financial costs incurred when someone is left disabled by gun violence. These include healthcare and disability benefits paid for with public dollars, as well as lost productivity – about $200 billion annually in the United States. “It’s astronomical,” he said, “and I think that would be shocking to a lot of folks.”

Smith concludes her Teen Vogue piece with a question: “The March for Our Lives and larger surrounding push for improved gun control could be at the cusp of critical social change: Will it include the disability community and decades of valuable experience, or it will leave them behind?”

It’s a good question. Particularly since the gun debate is one in which a significant number of people with disabilities have first-hand knowledge, tremendous moral authority, and a very personal stake in the outcome.


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