Friday, August 3, 2007

Verbal Abuse is a Hate Crime

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Anita Creamer: A disabled driver vs. a mob's stereotypes By Anita Creamer - Bee Columnist

Last Updated 2:01 am PDT Friday, August 3, 2007 Story appeared in SCENE section, Page J1

He just wanted a couple of burgers to take home for dinner. Instead, when Jerry Ferguson pulled into the parking lot of the In-N-Out Burger in Rancho Cordova late Sunday afternoon, what he got was a confrontation.

A group of maybe a dozen young women -- a pack of wolves, he calls them -- picked a fight with him when he walked back out to his truck, a gray Silverado with a California Disabled Person license plate, the kind with the handicapped symbol on it.

He'd parked in a disabled person's parking space, and they didn't think he has a disability.

"I couldn't believe what I was putting up with," says Ferguson, 57, who lives in east Sacramento. "They were like a mob.

"It made me wonder if Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie" -- the real axis of evil, to some minds -- "have made too big a dent in young people's thinking. They've got no respect for other people or the laws, and that mentality is out of control."

The women looked to be college age or in their 20s, he says, just ordinary, middle class, suburban young people.

"They said, 'You drive an awfully nice truck for someone who's disabled,' " he says, "and, 'You walk awfully good for someone parking in a disabled spot.'"

What an interesting set of stereotypes.

You can't always tell someone's disabled just by looking at him, though that fact tends to escape people who prefer dealing in assumptions.

Someone with end-stage lung cancer won't be on crutches, for example, and neither will someone with a serious heart condition.

By the same token, if people are burdened with a serious deficit of compassion or common sense, you can't always tell that at a glance, either.

"They started screaming at me," Ferguson says. "I ignored them and got in the truck. And then I thought, 'Who are they to tell me I'm not disabled?' "

As it happens, he's been retired from the state for the past four years, ever since his doctor diagnosed him with severe neck problems. Through the years, he's suffered from a list of health issues, everything from a fractured spine to disc problems to ulnar nerve damage.

"I don't complain much," he says, "because who the hell likes to hear somebody whine?"

He can walk unassisted, but that doesn't mean he's not in pain.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, you can't qualify for disabled person parking plates without a doctor's certification or, if applying in person, the loss of a lower limb or both hands.

"These young women seemed to think all disabled people should be crawling the streets with no assets of any kind," Ferguson says. "Who are they to make judgments of that kind? This is a frightening attitude. It really disturbs me."

Hence, the confrontation.

"Harsh words were spoken," he says. "Hand symbols were exchanged. As I was inching back out onto Sunrise, they stood up and flipped me off, and I gave it right back to them."

Oh, geez. That's no way to take the high ground, though it's a good bet onlookers were amused.

At one point, Ferguson says, he was concerned that one of the young women was going to attack him physically.

"I looked at her and thought, 'If you do that, you're going down,' " he says. "I didn't want to go there. If you attack a disabled person, is that a hate crime?"

Yes, it is, at least in California.

"What would cause a dozen young women to have become so combative?" he says.

Bad childhoods, maybe, or bad manners. Or more likely the same free-floating anger that seems to infect people of all ages: Too many people seem ready to explode at any moment, for any reason, at any target.

"It was like gangland," he says. "It was bizarre and over something that was none of their business.

"Am I crazy, or is the world losing its center?"

Crazy, no. Disabled and dissed, yes.