Anonymous fliers being posted around Portland, with messages threatening to reveal the names of neighborhood residents who receive disability benefits, qualify as “hate speech,” according to the Portland Commission on Disability (PCOD).
As of today, the PCOD says it has received 75 reports of the fliers from 14 different neighborhoods around Portland, with 27 reports coming from the Laurelhurst area. The messages say the author or authors will expose the names of a particular number of people – a number which varies from one flier to the next. Signed “Artemis of the wildland,” the notes imply that people who receive disability benefits imperil democracy.
The PCOD denounced the fliers in a statement released Friday that reads:
“Our Commission is deeply troubled by these fliers, and we find this behavior threatening in both tone and content. The vast majority of people with disabilities who receive disability benefits genuinely need those benefits just to survive. We view this act as hate speech against people with disabilities in our community. Given the nature of this message, we are necessarily concerned for the safety of our neighbors with disabilities who are being targeted here. We ask that the community help us put an end to this before it escalates further.” (Emphasis added)
The fliers say when names are posted “the neighborhood can decide who is truly disabled,” suggesting the notes are aimed especially at those with “invisible disabilities” — disabilities with no obvious external, physical signs, such as mental illness.
Many people have trouble understanding that just because you don’t see a disability doesn’t make it any less real, or less painful, writes Otto F. Wahl, PhD, in his book Telling is Risky Business.
Wahl quotes one individual:
“The suffering of mental illness is just incredible…. The suffering. I can’t emphasize that enough…. Because of the stigma, because of people turning their backs and walking away. It’s like somebody stepping over a dead body. If you were dying on the street, literally dying, and people [were] just kinda blase and stepped over you…how would you feel?”
Notes of violence
The messages’ tone conveys “underlying notes of violence,” Jeff Selby, a spokesperson for Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, told The Oregonian last week.
Commissioner Joe VanderVeer, chair of the PCOD, explained via email why the commission views the messages as “hate speech”:
“The Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights and the Portland Commission on Disability are viewing this as hate speech because the message being communicated is clearly meant to incite anger and resentment against ‘people receiving disability benefits,’ which, of course, is a general reference to people with disabilities.
“Furthermore,” said VanderVeer, “we feel that, by using language like ‘wish to save this democracy and stand in the way of those who would destroy it,’ the author is attempting to incite others to join them in taking action against people with disabilities, as well.
“The author of this note also threatens to post people’s names so that the ‘neighborhood’ can pass judgment on them.” he said. “The fact that this is being done anonymously under a fictitious pseudonym and seems to be arriving on people’s doorsteps in the middle of the night also adds to the threatening nature of this bizarre communication. “
VanderVeer said that the PCOD has heard multiple reports from people with disabilities, saying the flier has caused them to be afraid when outside their homes in their own neighborhoods.
He added that he would not characterize Portland as a place with a general atmosphere of hate against persons with disabilities; however, “it is important to note that people with disabilities as a demographic are the most likely to be victimized and subjected to all forms of abuse.”
Despite the ADA and other signs of progress, VanderVeer said, “There are still some powerful prejudices that lie just below the surface in our society that regard people with disabilities as ‘burdens on society.’ Things like this flier play on those prejudices.”
An invitation for ‘Artemis’
The fliers spotlight a widespread misunderstanding of what it means to have a disability, said PCOD Commissioner Kristi Jamison, executive director of Empowerment Initiatives.
“There’s a lot of education that is missing around issues of disability and potential for work or other ways persons carrying this label contribute to society,” she said.
For many, said Jamison, “there are times when one is able (symptom freedom) and times when one may not be. It’s not a life for the faint of heart. There are many conditions and illnesses that are not immediately observable, but are no less ‘disabling’ than someone needing an assistive device. Often this lends to additional stigma that it is not a ‘credible’ condition.”
Jamison has an invitation for the person or persons behind the fliers:
“Meet us. Take the time to learn our stories. We are your friends, neighbors, co-workers, even your civic leaders.”
Anyone who receives or has seen the flier is asked to report it to the PCOD at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-823-4432.