Personal Story

Feature Issue on Engaging Communities Underrepresented in Disability Research

My Perspective: We Need to do More


Debbie Robinson is executive director of Speaking for Ourselves, a self-advocacy organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She may be reached at

Fighting for people with disabilities in the criminal justice system has been one of my passions for many years, ever since Bob Perske made me aware of the Johnny Wilson case. [Wilson was wrongfully convicted in a 1986 murder and served nine years in prison before he was pardoned]. The system is a hard, inaccessible place for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD), who frequently do not understand what’s happening. By the time agencies or advocates find out about their situation, it is often too late. When someone is first arrested and put in a room with detectives, they are alone and don’t understand how to protect themselves.

Once, a gentleman with disabilities was at a mall and did something that was not at all appropriate. The mall called Speaking for Ourselves and I had to go down and the cops were already there. If I hadn’t let them know this individual had an agency supporting him, who knows what would have happened to him that day? I believe he would have been arrested on the spot. Many times, agencies can help diffuse a situation that does not need to end in arrest.

People with IDD are easy targets and are often falsely accused. Some cops are shooting, killing, and asking questions later. People with disabilities are dying and they don't understand what is happening. You've probably seen it on the news, too. People with mental illness or disability doing something in a neighborhood that’s not okay, or something's happening and they don't understand what the cop is saying. So, of course, they're going to draw their weapon, and the next thing you know, the person's either been shot in the back or seriously injured.

A Black woman sitting in a wheelchair, her hair swept back, looks up and to her left. Her article racial disparities among people with disabilities.

Debbie Robinson: “We used to have freedom marches. We met with legislators. But what do you do after that?

For African-American people with disabilities and mental illness, it’s happening more and more. There are two different systems for people with disabilities. There’s one for African Americans with disabilities, like myself, and one for people who are white with disabilities. [The systems are] totally different. People with disabilities who are not white get sentenced to more time in prison and are treated differently that people with disabilities who are white.

There is a color barrier, but all people with disabilities are treated differently from those without disabilities. You see more people with disabilities being shot and getting killed because of some kind of behavior. People with disabilities are being not just arrested, but being killed. They don't even make it to the jailhouse. They've been thrown into the paddy wagon and it's just horrible how they treat people with disabilities in this justice system.

To fix it, we need more education. We need stronger statewide laws, and police retraining. Despite all the training that’s happened so far, there are still cops out there with a mentality of mistreating people of color with disabilities.

We all have to come to the table, with the justice system, with the cops. We need to come together and work together and come up with something and really enforce it. And we need to realize some of the cops inside the police department could be racist. There's a whole lot of things that are coming out on the news now about all this. I think we all need to come together and come and work on something universal, and the advocates, we need to step up our game and come together and work on this issue.

We used to have freedom marches. We met with legislators. But what do you do after that? What have we done? The next step is to come and really work on these issues. I think we really need to do more. We're in a different time now. I've seen a lot of people on the news and I'm hearing a lot of people with disabilities are being killed, shot. A lot of our folks are being killed every single day. When is this going to stop? The only way it's going to stop is if we work together and make our issues known to Washington, D.C. Put this on the books.