Standing Up: Disabled Adults Keeping Their Ground

Being different has always drawn stares to Revere’s Ernie Sacco. Throughout his life, he has grown pretty accustomed to having people stare at him, but these days, the gazes are different and the audience is engaged.

Now, people are staring at him in order to learn from him.

On a recent morning at Malden’s Triangle program, a room full of young men with physical and mental disabilities fixed their eyes upon Sacco.

An able-bodied man from the other side of the room wearing sunglasses and a leather coat sauntered over in Sacco’s direction – his eyes fixed upon Sacco, who has Down’s Syndrome.

“Hey pal, what’re you doin’ over there,” said the man casually, moving closer as Sacco pretended to wait for the bus.

Sacco’s hands quickly went up in the form of a ‘Stop’ sign.

“Stop, you’re coming too close,” said Sacco succinctly.

“What’s the problem, dude?” the man said. “Don’t freak out. I’m just seeing what you’re up to over there. I wanted to talk to you.”

Getting louder, Sacco repeated, “I don’t want to talk. Please stop.”

But the man continued to come closer, and said he thought he had seen Sacco before.

Now yelling, Sacco stood his ground and repeated, “Don’t come any closer, please.”

The man retreated suddenly, looking around as he went.

Then, Sacco immediately went to a woman who is acting as his teacher, and he reported the incident to her, giving details and descriptions.

The above scenario plays out daily at Triangle in its groundbreaking ‘IMPACT: Ability’ self-defense classes. The classes are designed for young men and women who face mental challenges and, these days, are increasingly intermingled with the general public – holding jobs, going to school and living independently in group homes.

Unfortunately, as adults with mental challenges have increasingly been included with the general public, they also have become targets for violence in ever-increasing numbers.

That said, organizations like Triangle are teaching these adults to stand their ground and to escape conflicts with people who are out to get them. And the program has become so successful that Triangle has been able to hire former students, such as Sacco, to help teach the class.

“I’m ready for it now,” said Sacco, 48. “I know what to do. I used to be afraid of someone attacking me. I was afraid if my mom or my sister wasn’t there. Now, I stand up. My mom and my sister can’t always fight for me. I want to step up and fight for myself. I want to do it myself.”

On Their Own

More than 10 years ago, due to a ruling in Massachusetts state court, adults with physical and mental challenges were largely transferred out of institutions and, especially, nursing homes.

They transitioned into group homes located in everyday residential neighborhoods throughout Revere and other cities and towns. They also began working in jobs in places like pharmacies and supermarkets, outside of the traditional “sheltered workshop” environment. It’s been a vast improvement for disabled adults in terms of their quality of life.

“The sheltered workshop was great for the 1970s, but things have changed a great deal,” said Jeff Gentry of Triangle. “We try to move people out into the community as much as possible now. Many, though, choose a sheltered environment because of fear and are avoiding community integration because of being scared of violence. We don’t have data on who is doing that, but anecdotally we know it’s a lot. Unfortunately, sheltered environments aren’t always as safe as one might think, and they aren’t going to be here forever. Separate working environments for disabled adults are getting cut by states all the time. States want us to move these adults into the community.”

The one problem no one anticipated was that the community had the potential to be much more dangerous for these adults than for others.

Statistics Are Astounding

For disabled adults, statistics in Massachusetts show that they might as well be walking around with a bull’s-eye on their backs.

According to the state’s Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), in statistics cited by Triangle, disabled individuals are twice as likely to be the victim of a physical or sexual assault as compared to the general population. For disabled men, the figure jumps to three times as likely, and men are more likely to be sexually assaulted than able-bodied women.

The figures, also, are on the rise.

Last year, there was a 10 percent increase in reported crimes on disabled adults.

Some of that, clearly, is due to increased reporting of crimes, and fewer crimes being ignored. Even so, the picture is not pretty.

“It’s pretty much without parallel,” said Gentry. “The violence against people with disabilities is astounding. It’s a concern because many people with disabilities choose to live in segregated environments because of the threat of potential violence…The fact is, if you work here and are trusted by the participants, you will simply get abuse reports. That’s how prevalent it is.”

Fighting Back, Being Loud

That’s where the IMPACT: Ability program found its usefulness.

With such statistics, it was clear to disabled individuals, their families and the people who work with them, that some training was necessary.

But just what kind of training would that be? It was a good question.

Could disabled individuals fight back?

Were they to use their fists?

Would they be confident enough to repulse an attacker?

That’s where the Impact program came along. Impact is a self-defense program for able-bodied adults that began in the 1980s and found a great deal of success. Members of that organization and Triangle workers decided to modify the program for disabled adults – especially men.

“We wanted to give them the skills to defend themselves from potential attackers or perpetrators,” said Gentry. “The training is based on a program where you learn to properly orientate your voice and body in a moment of fear.”

Now, several times a week, young men and women from Revere, Chelsea and Everett gather and learn what to do when facing trouble. Then, they practice mock situations – as detailed in the outset of this article – with coaches in the program.

While some of the coaches, like Sacco, have disabilities; others are long-time coaches within the traditional program.

“I worked in special education a long time and I could see where people with disabilities could face violence outside of a sheltered environment,” said Coach Meaghan Anderson. “The things we teach in this program can help people with and without developmental delays.”

Said Coach Mike Perry, “I like working with all populations. What I like about this population is they’re coming from a cleaner place. It’s not like other adults. They are very innocent and scared.”

A Trailblazer 

On March 21st, Sacco made the trek from Oak Island to the State House, where he stood up and spoke to legislators about the importance of IMPACT: Ability. For many at the State House, it was the first they had heard of the issue of violence against disabled adults and the possibility of self-defense classes.

Sacco explained how he trains others who are disabled and helps them to be loud, to put their hands up and to find help.

Gentry said that Sacco is really a trailblazer on the subject, and not only in Massachusetts, but also in the nation. “There’s nothing going on with this,” said Gentry. “It’s really, really barren out there for spotlighting this issue. Multiple states have been reaching out to us to help them bring what we have to them. I think there are only two other places besides us that are doing this. Ernie absolutely has been at the leading edge and there’s a reason we trust him to stand up at the State House and speak for us. He is an adult and this is an issue that affects adults.”

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