We shouldn't put disabled on a pedestal

16:00, Feb 18 2013
Oscar Pistorius
MURDER CHARGE: Oscar Pistorius weeps in court as he is charged in court with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Oscar Pistorius, the South African track star, has allegedly shot his girlfriend to death. The world is stunned. Other athletes have committed violent crimes, but Pistorius was supposed to be different. We expected better of him. Why?

"Pistorius seemed to personify only good things," one columnist says. "His was a story of perseverance, taking chances, inclusion and giving hope to others, especially the disabled." He was "an unprecedented champion for equality and disabled rights", says another. He gave us ‘the feeling of watching humanity advance", says a third.

There were stories about his guns and his rage, but we ignored them because "he was a hero and we wanted him to be perfect". Michael Rosenberg of SI.com puts the question bluntly: "Were we shocked because he is a double-amputee? I think so."

Bullseye. We expected better of Pistorius because he is disabled. We confused the goodness of his story with good character. We put him on a pedestal. But equality is not about being special. It is about being ordinary. People with disabilities are not above sin or crime. They are just like the rest of us. Nobody keeps records on how many people with physical impairments have committed crimes.

Scan the internet, and you will find felons of all kinds. Disability makes it harder to commit some crimes. But it does not make the perpetrators nicer.

For some, disability is just another card they can play. In 2008, Joseph Taye, a driver with a suspended licence, sped home from a bar in Delaware and fatally struck a firefighter who was helping an injured motorcyclist. Taye fled the scene. In court, he attributed his behaviour to anger at his paralysis, and his lawyer argued that a life sentence would be unduly harsh because Taye would not be able to get therapy for his legs.


In 2009, Christchurch man Shayne Richard Sime left his house in a wheelchair, fired more than 100 shots at his neighbours' homes with three guns, and wounded a policeman. He was shot dead by police, with his death ruled a suicide.

Two years ago in Canada, Baljit Singh Buttar, 35, a quadriplegic, pleaded guilty to a murder plot - orchestrated from his hospital bed. Buttar told a reporter his confessions did not matter because he could not be sent to jail due to his condition.

A month later, a Minnesota appeals court dismissed an appeal by James Adam Roth, a paraplegic who had used stun guns, drugs, and accomplices to capture, bind, and sexually abuse young women. Roth argued that the state could not commit him to its sex offender programme as a dangerous person, since he was "physically incapable of physically forcing anyone to do anything."

Last year, John Christopher Champion, a Florida man, allegedly maneuvered his wheelchair around a convenience store counter, threatened the clerk with a knife, and ordered her to open the cash register. According to police, Champion told the clerk that the cops would not arrest a handicapped person.

These people are not bearing a cross. They are jerking your chain. When criminals invoke disability as grounds for leniency, they insult every normal, law-abiding disabled person. "Why . . . live for other people when you're having a f..... life? . . . I'm in a . . . chair," Shayne Sime told the policeman who tried to reason with him. The policeman replied: "You're not the only person that's in a chair, Shayne."

Justice is about more than compassion. It is about the right to be judged on your own. You run your own race. You make your own decisions. Most people with prosthetic legs do not shoot their lovers. Most guys who survive testicular cancer do not run doping rings in the Tour de France. Something about beating cancer or overcoming a birth defect tugs at our hearts. It paralyses our judgment. We do not want to believe that people who have accomplished such things can do evil. Most do not. But some do.

"Pistorius always wanted to compete with the best sprinters in the world," writes Rosenberg. "We should have viewed him that way. We should have realised he was fundamentally an elite, hyper-competitive athlete. In that context, his apparent crime is not as surprising."

Exactly. Pistorius deserves to be treated like anybody else. That's what he taught us on the way up. It's what he's teaching us on the way down, too.

William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.

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