Disabled Americans much more likely to be arrested, study finds

ITHACA, N. Y. — Disabled individuals are much more likely to have been arrested by the time they hit their 30s, a new study finds.

Researchers at Cornell University looked at data from a national survey of Americans born in the early 1980s, finding that those who had a diagnosed physical, emotional, cognitive, or sensory impairment were 44 percent more likely than the general population to have a record by the age of 28.

Person in handcuffs under arrest
A new study finds that Americans with disabilities of any kind are far more likely to be arrested by the time they reach their 30s than the general population.

“I expected to find that people with disabilities would be more likely to be arrested, but I was frankly shocked by how large the disparity was,” says Erin McCauley, the study’s lead author, in a university release.

African American men who happened to be disabled saw the highest rates of arrest, with 55 percent apprehended during the period examined — only half as many non-disabled whites males had a similar criminal record.

“These findings really point to a problem,” McCauley argues. “For people with disabilities, particularly men of color, the experience of arrest is extraordinarily common. They are constantly exposed to this risk.”

Since rates of disability were fairly consistent among different races, the researchers believe that racial discrimination plays a significant role in these alarming arrest rates.

To reverse these trends, police must actively try to de-escalate conflict, minimize the use of force, and check their implicit biases at the door, the researchers emphasize.

“Police officers should understand how disabilities may affect compliance and other behaviors, and likewise how implicit bias and structural racism may affect reactions and actions of officers and the systems they work within in ways that create inequities,” McCauley explains.

She argues that by ensuring that disabled individuals receive adequate treatment, policymakers can be a solution to the problem.

“For many with disabilities, quality health care is imperative for positive functioning within the community through increasing access to medication and support services,” the researcher concludes.

McCauley et al. published their findings in November in the American Journal of Public Health.