Transformative Justice And/As Harm

front heart

Zine cover: broken heart fabric pin on red fabric

This is a zine I wrote about transformative justice in 2014 but have been shy to put it online until now.

If you are looking for a how-to or the answers to your questions, this isn’t it. How-to transformative justice guides do exist but I am very skeptical of them because there is no magic formula for this work. It also probably asks more questions that it answers. But I try to give a thoughtful critique of my own role in trying to do TJ work and my the ways that I have unintentionally caused harm while trying to create justice.

Also, this zine is really long and might be triggering to some people as it is mostly about sexual assault.


Click Here for Transformative Justice And/As Harm

Access: My computer died and I don’t have the original files. So, the one with the cover is a flat pdf and screen readers can’t read it. The other version doesn’t have a cover and the table of contents is obnoxious to read with a screen reader (sorry, I can’t figure out how to change it). But once you get to page 2, you are good to go.

Click here for Transformative Justice And/As Harm – screen reader version

Violence and Abuse Against Disabled People

Trigger Warning:This page includes information about sexual assault, violence and abuse.

Physical violence and abuse are commonplace in the lives of many disabled people. These stories of violence are almost always individualized. They are painted as individual tragedies (much like disabilities themselves) and this depiction does a grave disservice to disabled people and our experiences. Second wave feminists fought to take violence against women out of the individual sphere and acknowledge that it is systemic. A similar refocusing needs to happen around violence against disabled people, particularly disabled women (who, while they often experience abuse have largely been excluded from feminist movements to address and end violence against women).

Rates of violence against disable people are terrifyingly high. We are one of the groups most frequently victimized by violent crime.

There are numerous tragic stories of people being targeted because they are disabled and subject to public humiliation and violence, yet the United States federal government does not consider an attack on a disabled person because they are disabled to be a hate crime. Legislation to include disability as a federal hate crime was defeated in 2002. Only 32 states recognize disability as a protected group under hate crime legislation. There have been about 1,100 reported hate crimes against disabled people in the United States since 1991.

In Canada, disabled people are supposedly classified as an identifiable group for the purposes of a have crime but it is very rarely used.

Violence Against Disabled Women

Disabled women are especially at risk for violent assault, sexual assault and abuse. There are a number of reasons for this, including double (or sometimes more) marginalization, the perception they are unable to fight back, the reality that the perpetrators of this violence will likely not be criminally charged or convicted and the fact that most anti-violence against women campaigns have failed to adequately address disabled women’s issues, educate disabled women or the public or provide resources for disabled women.

Because our society is constructed (physically and otherwise) to separate disabled and non-disabled people, feminist and governmental programs developed to address violence against women have largely excluded disabled women.

However, disabled women are very likely to be victims of violence. And, at times, the separation disabled women experience makes them more vulnerable. For example, in Toronto, the public transit system is largely physically inaccessible; therefore, women who require accommodation often have to ride Wheeltrans, the wheelchair accessible transportation. Oftentimes, women find themselves alone in a small bus or car with a strange man and are subject to verbal harassment. There have been a number of women who have been sexually assaulted on Wheeltrans as well – they are easy targets because they are alone in a confined space.

DAWN Ontario (DisAbled Women’s Network) found that “women with disabilities are 1.5 to 10 times as likely to be abused as non-disabled women, depending on whether they live in the community or in institutions.”

Women confined to institutions are particularly vulnerable because they are unable to escape, are under the full control of those with power in institutions (doctors, administrators, attendants, nurses, etc.), and are often less likely to be believed (especially if they have intellectual disabilities or are psychiatrized).

Married disabled women are 40% more likely to be victims of violence by their husbands than non-disabled women.

Outside of the institution or in it, the likelihood of those who abuse disabled women being reported, charged and ultimately convicted is extremely small, particularly in regards to intellectually disabled women. One study found that although the offender was known in 95% of the cases, only 22% of the perpetrators were charged with an offence, and only 8%… were convicted.”

A Swedish court found that a paralyzed, intellectually disabled woman was not raped because she could not dissent.

Once women seek help, they often find themselves with no where to go. One 2005 Study by DAWN found that only 1/2 of the women who sought help from houses for abused women were accommodated.

There are also many people who have been murdered because they are disabled.

Experimentation As Assault

The medical establishment is likely the biggest perpetrator of abuse against disabled people. This has included direct sexual or physical assault by doctors and young children and adults being stripped and forced to stand in front of groups of doctors while they analyze and mock disabled people’s bodies.

Medical experiments have often been done on disabled people as well. Frequently, they are done without any consent or information given to the people being subjected to the experimentation. These experiments often result in harm, or even torture to the people who they are forced upon.

There are 4 main reasons why disabled people are so often targeted for experimentation:

  • Disabled people are seen as less than human so the same ethics and moral standards do not apply;
  • Disabled people are deemed unlikely or unable to complain, or litigate if there are abuses;
  • Disabled people are deemed to be biological novelties; and/or,
  • There is a tremendous amount of contempt or even hatred within the scientific community towards disabled people.

Here are just a few examples of how disabled people have been abused, assaulted or even murdered through experimentation:

The Lobotomy: Tens of thousands of people were subject to this brain surgery between 1935 and 1955. Some of the consequences of this surgery are extreme personality changes, impaired judgment, and lack of impulse control.

Quaker Oats Radiation Experiments: dozens of intellectually disabled children at the Fernald State School Massachusetts were fed radiation-spiked cereal in nutrition experiments during the 1940s and 1959s. Their parents were unaware of the experiments.

Plutonium Injections: In the 1940s, the U.S. Government injected 18 “terminally ill” people with high doses of plutonium to see what would happen. Those injected did not consent to the procedure, which likely killed several people. Those who survived were only told about the injections in 1974.

Electro Shock: ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) is the treatment of choice for major depression. It has been used in the States since the 1940s and quickly became a favourite procedure of psychiatrists (by 1966 1 in 3 were using it). Doctors still do not know how or why it “works” and it has lead to very serious side effects for a number of people. Some ECT survivors refer to it as torture.

Teeth and Organ Removal: Thousands of psychiatrized people were subject to surgeries to “cure” insanity beginning in the early 1900s Some of the more drastic surgeries had a death rate upwards of 30% and sometimes 40% (not surprisingly, most of the people operated on were women and their surgeries often involved removing reproductive organs).

Violence Against Disabled Children

Disabled children are disproportionately targeted for abuse, whether it is from other kids or from adults. It is very difficult to find any concrete research that has been done on abuse of disabled people and the definitions of disability vary but one thing is clear: disabled kids are neglected, emotionally, physically and sexually abused more than other kids

Disabled 10 and 11 year-olds in Canada were two to almost three times as likely to be bullied all or most of the time as their non-disabled counterparts.

In 1968, the records of all of the kids who were under 15 years old (41-56 years old now) show that 7 in 10 of the children were disabled.

Children with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable, with a third to two-thirds of girls and almost a third of boys experiencing sexual abuse by the time they are 18 years old.

From time to time, there is a horror story about the treatment of disabled children, like the children in Ohio who were locked in cages at night or the rape of an intellectually disabled girl with a baseball bat.

However, the day to day abuses of disabled kids often go unnoticed and unpenalized. Some people believe that this is, in part, caused by the people seeing the abuse – teachers, neighbours, friends and family, attributing it to the extra stress of having a disabled child and fail to intervene to defend the abused or neglected child. This phenomenon may be exacerbated by the belief of the people failing to act, and/or social services that disabled children will not be cared for or have their needs met outside of the home so they tolerate the abuse.

Obviously, this is unacceptable and the presence of a disability is no reason to permit abuse to continue.

Personal Attendants As Perpetrators

Many disabled people rely on attendant care (paid or unpaid) to help do a lot of things from cooking and eating to shopping and going to the bathroom. There is an inherent power imbalance in this relationship because the attendant can withdraw their services at any point – having devastating consequences for the person who needs those services to get by.

This power dynamic, along with the devaluing of disabled people in society, means that the people who are supposed to be providing care for disabled people sometimes become abusers.

One study found that 30 percent of people with personal attendants were mistreated reported mistreatment from their primary provider, and 61 percent reported mistreatment by another provider.

Theft and Extortion:
Commonly, attendants steel from disabled people or extort money knowing that the threat of the loss of care (which literally means going hungry or not being able to go to the bathroom) will keep people from seeking help or ending the relationship with the provider.

Over a quarter of people with “severe” disabilities who rely on attendants have experienced neglect. This could be anything from not cutting food small enough so someone chokes to not checking for bedsores. While it is common, it is not okay.

Physical Abuse:
It is likely that the majority of physical abuse instances involving attendants are when attendants are too rough or don’t listen properly so it results in injury (sometimes the line between this type of physical abuse and neglect is very thin and other times it is clearly physical abuse). Some people intentionally rough handle disabled people in a way that the victim is unsure what was going on, making them less likely to report the attendant or end the relationship.

Sexual Abuse:
This type of abuse can take a number of forms – from inappropriate and unwanted sexual comments to focusing on certain areas of the person receiving the services (especially while bathing or dressing), inappropriate touching, and rape.

What Can Be Done About Attendant Abuse?

The primary thing that needs to happen is a fundamental reorganizing of society and an elimination of oppression, in the interim, there are a lot of other things that people can work to make happen.

Direct Funding:
Disabled people who direct their own care and have more autonomy have less of a power imbalance with the people who are providing care. At least one study has shown that having direct funding does not lead to a reduction in abuse; however, that is a study of the system as it is now – a broken system. If disabled people not only have control over how their funding is used, but also enough funds and staff and hours to not be in a constant precarious position in relation to their care, there would likely be a substantial reduction in the instances of abuse.

Worker Education:
Training schools for attendants and unions should offer anti-ableist training for everyone who is going into the paid attendant care field, nurses and orderlies. A great deal of the cause of abuse is rooted in ableism and helping people develop better politics and understandings of disability will help reduce abuse.

Listen & Believe:
A major fear for many abuse survivors is that no one will believe them. This can be exacerbated by a power imbalance and people’s experiences of discrimination. If someone tries to talk to you about abuse they are experiencing, listen to them and do not brush off what they are saying for any reason, especially their disability.

Talk About It:
If you are being abused by a caregiver, tell someone you trust about it. Even if you take no other action, talking about it will help you process what happened.

Give/Take Direction:
When you are abused you lose control. An important part of the recovery process is ensuring you have the power to direct how it is dealt with. If you are supporting someone, ask them how they want to deal with it and respect that decision. It is the individual’s choice about how to deal with it and if they are forced to seek a remedy they are uncomfortable with it could damage your relationship and work to victimize them further.

In-text links used in this post:

DAWN Ontario

study about the criminal charges laid against perpetrators

The Lobotomy

Quaker Oats Radiation Experiments

Plutonium Injections

Electro Shock

Teeth and Organ Removal

children in Ohio locked in cages

the rape of an intellectually disabled girl


Many disabled people are segregated from society through institutions, nursing homes and psych facilities. While this was far more common in the past, there is still a significant portion of the disabled population that is kept under lock and key.

There are a number of different kinds of institutions:

Training schools and juvenile facilities:

One of the most extreme examples of a juvenile institution is the Alberta Provincial Training School. The court found in Muir v. Alberta that Lelani Muir was:

improperly detained…The particular type of confinement of which Ms Muir was a victim resulted in many travesties to her young person: loss of liberty, loss of reputation, humiliation and disgrace, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of normal developmental experiences, loss of civil rights, loss of contact with family and friends, subjection to institutional discipline.

Not only was Ms Muir unlawfully and unethically sterilized, she was subject to countless deprivations and abuses while attending the school. The Provincial Training School, which spearheaded hundreds of sterilizations of its inmates, also abused many of the people there in other ways. Resident-inmates were drugged, beaten, straight-jacketed or put in solitary confinement. According to the Court, Leilani Muir was also forced to eat mush and cleanup after others who were more seriously disabled, including changing the diapers of adults. Residents were also experimented on. At least 15 boys with Down’s Syndrome had had their right testicle removed. The Doctor in charge of the school was running experiments on the testicular tissue.

The abuses at the Alberta Provincial Training School occurred decades ago but there schools that not only operate today but also advertise their abuses.

Psych Institutions
Psychiatric facilities are rumored to be breeding grounds for human experimentation. During the 1950s and 1960s, experiments were preformed on about 100 people at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, Quebec. There, according to Don Weitz and Bonnie Burstow in Shrink Resistant: the struggle against psychiatry in Canada, they “were forcibly subjected to an unprecedented combination of psychiatric tortures; regressive electroshock, massive drugging, sensory isolation, prolonged sleep therapy and psychic driving”.

Electro-shock or ECT is one of the most common experiments in psych facilities. Burstow and Weitz state that “[a]fter 50 years of research and practice, the shock doctors tell us they don’t know why zapping a person with electricity ‘works’. They lay no claim to knowledge at all.”

While abuses are extensive in psych facilities, it is far more common for inmates/patients/residents/prisoners to experience more subtle and passive forms of abuse. These abuses can include threats; destruction of property; the prohibition of actions that are natural and normal such as asking questions, being restless, or expressing one’s sexuality; name calling; and, countless other forms of demoralizing and dehumanizing treatment.


While institutions are still far too prevalent in our society and many people who would like to be, and could be, living independently are hindered from doing so as a result of government policy, there have been shifts towards deinstitutionalization in the past decades.

Recognizing the financial expense of keeping people in institutions and, using the outcry from inmate-patients, family, friends and the community over the treatment of disabled people, the government did begin to transition people into out of institutions in the mid 1950’s and this became a large scale endeavor in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

This is from a 1977 US President’s Committee on Mental Retardation report:

The current movement to decrease the number of retarded persons in institutions and to increase the number resident in the community – “deinstitutionalization” – has been promoted on both humanitarian and economic grounds. While there is little disagreement that the traditional institutional patterns of custodial care have been dehumanizing, there is disagreement on the question of economy and the comparative quality of community services presently available.

However, as neo-liberalism and fiscal conservatism swept Canada and the United States, it became obvious that money could indeed be saved if institutions were closed. The way to save money was simple: just close beds in institutions, promise to offer services in the community and don’t deliver on those promises.

The Canadian Senate even said that: “In many cases, deinstitutionalization has been undertaken without the necessary community supports being in place”.

This was because, as Dr. Richard O’Reilly put it: “The solution for fiscal conservatives was simple: as individuals with mental illness don’t vote or complain effectively, they were discharged and hospitals were closed”

When the institution doors swung open, many of inmates adjusted well to their new found freedom and the outside world. Sadly, though, some group homes were not really much different from larger institutions. Often they were geographically isolated in areas far away from other disabled communities or services and institutional mentalities and abuses from staff could still occurred.

And, some people were given no treatment at all. Some people, like a number of people depicted in Pat Capponi’s Upstairs In The Crazy House, she depicts the lives of several people who found that their treatment post deinstitutionalization was far less humane that their institutional treatment. When Capponi was released, she was sent to a private group home in Parkdale, Toronto. There she was subject to living in a freezing cold house with only $18 a month to live on after her room and board were paid. Caponi also describes the situation of a man who spent seventeen years in a psych facility. During the deinstitutionalization period, he was handed “a bus ticket and an address” to the same private group home and sent out the door.

As the neo-liberal agenda continued, there were even more cuts, particularly to social assistance, health care and social housing. In the United States one quarter of welfare recipients ceased getting assistance in the period between 1993 and 1997. In Canada, in 2003 41.3% fewer people were receiving welfare than ten years previously. Beyond people being kicked off of assistance, rates were frozen or slashed in many areas as well. For example, in Ontario, welfare rates were cut by 21.6% in 1995 (a loss of 1/5th of many people’s income) and disability rates were frozen in 1993 which, with inflation, amounted to about a 2% cut a year.

Public funding cuts to health care saw US expenditures on mental health services decrease two-thirds from what it had been 40 years previously. Similar cuts took place in Canada.

While many disabled people, were affected by these cuts, psychiatrized people and psych survivors were the hardest hit. Much of the increases in poverty and homelessness were on their backs. Indeed, during 1980s and 1990s, there was a “visible increase in homelessness” in the US and Canada. By 1999 approximately one third of all homeless people in Toronto were psych survivors or psychiatrized people (this statistic is slightly problematic as living on the streets can and does lead to mental health issues and psychiatrization so it is difficult to say that the lack of funding of community supports led to the increase in homelessness or if low social assistance and lack of accessible housing led to homelessness which then led to psychiatrization or mental health issues).

Deinstitutionalization should have led to greater inclusion, participation and autonomy, but because it was never done with or for the people who were deinstitutionalization it led to many people’s lives getting no better, if not worse.

With incredible amounts of poverty, inadequate housing, and no supports, many people, once they were deinstitutionalized, ended up in prison because the state wanted to control them but didn’t want to put the money into social assistance, housing and community care.

Prisons And The Reinstitutionalization of Disabled People

“At any given moment, 40 percent of all Americans with serious mental illness are estimated to be in jail or prison, comprising from 10 to 30 percent of all inmates” ~ Jane Stewart and Marta Russell

Generally, there is a disproportionate number of disabled people in the prison population. In Canada, nearly 30% or women inmates and 17% of male inmates have Hepatitis C and almost 4% and 2%, respectively, are HIV positive. 30% of prisoners in the US have at least some hearing loss. In all, there is an unknown number of physically disabled and intellectually disabled people in prisons. Some estimates put the population of intellectually disabled people in prisons at as high as 9.5% and in the juvenile population learning disabilities are estimated at 55%.

There are 3 reasons why there are so many disabled people in prisons.

Poverty and Lack of Supports
Many disabled people live in poverty and make wages that are far lower than non-disabled people or scrape by on shamefully low social assistance rates. This coupled with the criminalization of a number of behaviours associated with “mental illness” means that many disabled people find themselves committing ‘crimes’ like steeling food, committing other acts of minor theft, loitering, trespassing, doing sex work and selling drugs, among other things, to make money.

Depending where people live, they could to jail for many, if not all of these ‘offenses’ and for some of them, they could be locked up for years.

Also, poverty means that once someone is arrested, they cannot afford a good lawyer so they have a publicly funded lawyer with a high caseload and very little time.

Disablism in the Judicial System

Lawyers are less likely to spend the amount of time that is actually needed to interview defendants with intellectual disabilities.

The courts have been found to have a tenancy to find that a defendant with an intellectual disability is competent to stand trial when the defendant isn’t because the incompetence is seen as permanent. However, the opposite is true in the case for psychiatrized people because that is often seen to be temporary. But this means that there are intellectually disabled people who are on trial who do not understand what is going on and/or instruct their lawyers.

Further, many judges are known to be racist and sexist and it is fair to assume that there are many judges who are disablist and who actively discriminate against disabled defendants.

Disblism in the Prison Systems
When disabled people go to jail, they are punished twice: once for the crime they were convicted of and once for being disabled.

Stairs and physical access: this could make parts of the prison, which could include the yard, visiting areas, showers, medical facilities, programs, and, likely, half of the beds in the institution unavailable to many physically disabled inmates. Loss of access to these and other areas could make their time harder or compromise their health.

ASL and TTY: many programs are inaccessible and day-to-day functioning in prison very difficult due to lack of intrepreters. Further, deaf inmates can be cut-off from the outside world even more if prison telephones do not necessarily provide TTY or TDD services.

Personal support workers: attendant care is largely unavailable to disabled inmates who need it. Guards are left to do basic support tasks, which they aren’t trained to do. Some inmates go without meals and are not allowed to use the toilet.

Other prisoners: Disabled prisoners may experience overt disablism. They also may have a difficult time defending themselves because of their disabilities.

Personal aid devices: mobility and assistive devices are often taken away from people when they are arrested (this includes prosthetics, canes, crutches, braces, etc.) and it can take a long time, and even a court hearing to get them back. Also if something breaks, it can be difficult or impossible to get it repaired or replaced.

Medical treatment: prisons in Canada and the United States are required to provide a basic level of medical care, but this is not always the case. In the Canadian federal prison system, 52% of it’s health care facilities failed to be accredited in 2006 because they did not meet basic requirements. Procedural decisions – like choosing to make medication rounds 3 times a day (when many people need medications 4 times a day, delivering sleeping pills at 5pm or choosing not to test diabetic prisoners’ insulin can have major, even deadly, impacts on people’s lives.

Medical wards: disabled inmates may also be isolated in medical wards or units specifically for the sick and disabled which can their access to programs and recreational facilities.

Segregation units: these are sometimes used to isolate people with allergies or people with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues who prison officials don’t know how to deal with.

Maximum security: some people, in some areas, are automatically put in maximum security because of their disabilities. For instance, rather than run programs for people with intellectual disabilities at every security level, the system can save money by putting everyone with an intellectual disability into maximum security which means that there are people who would otherwise be at minimum security who are forced to be in maximum security.

All of these things work to inhibit disabled prisoners’ ability to participate in programs. Prison programs could include high school or college courses, training programs, addiction recovery programs or anything else made available to inmates by administration or outside agencies. Prison programming can help pass the time inside, obtain parole and secure employment upon release.

If you do not participate in prison programming it is much harder to show the parole board that you can take on responsibility and that you deserve to be let out of prison.

Disabled people do harder time, get less out of their time and do more time.

So called deisntitutionalization was not about deinstitutionalization whatsoever, it was about moving people from more expensive and more humane institutions to the streets and then to prisons. People left institutions which were designed like prisons to go to prisons which are increasingly looking like institutions because of who is ending up there.

In-text links in this post::

Muir v. Alberta

Don Weitz

Bonnie Burstow

Shrink Resistant: the Struggle Against Psychiatry in Canada

Pat Capponi

Upstairs In The Crazy House


Stewart and Russell article