Defending (and Empowering) the Vulnerable | Sojourners

Defending (and Empowering) the Vulnerable


Through the wreckage of the Penn State abuse scandal, we’ve all become witnesses to what happens when our principles of justice are not assured for those who most need them.

When we see people in positions of power and authority — particularly those who have held a huge amount of respect and clout in a community — fail to protect the vulnerable in our society, it moves something within society’s collective conscience.

I imagine that the questions people all around the country asked when the news broke were similar:

How could this happen? Who wasn’t living up to our expectations? How can we make sure that something like this never happens again?

Of course, the huge media attention that this story has garnered reminds us that, sadly, the abuse of vulnerable children at Penn State is just one incident of many. Time and again, the most at-risk in our society have been abused, their cries for help ignored.

In the past few weeks, two more instances of abuse have come to the fore. Both involve children with disabilities – people whom one would expect we’d all want to take care of and ensure that they are safe and protected in our society.  But sadly, it appears that this has not been the case.

The Today Show featured the story of a14-year old special education student who was verbally abused by her teacher and classroom assistant. The adults repeatedly call the girl a “liar” and a “cheat” and make fun of her appearance. In one instance her teacher refused to grade her paper because, the teacher told her pupil, “I know you failed.” As punishment the adults forced the girl to run on a treadmill so that she could run towards the teacher’s unhealthy expectations.


Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy



In that school the girl was “learning” how to endure hatred and scorn. That falls a long way from an educational or society ideal. It's appalling.

While researching this piece, another report appeared in my newsfeed – this time about a 15-year-old special education student in New Jersey. When the boy dared to stand up and advocate for himself, he was shouted down and abused by his teacher.

One of the only good things to come out of these awful events is that more people are now aware of what can and is happening to the most vulnerable among us. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents — according to a U.S. Department of Justice survey, people with disabilities are twice as likely as those without disabilities to be victims of violent crimes, including sexual assault.  

These instances of abuse are probably the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to protecting members of the population with disabilities. There is no doubt that people with disabilities – who are often marginalized in the workforce, our neighborhoods, and sometimes even in their own families – are particularly susceptible to abuse.

So we need to ask: What are we doing to tackle these abuses?

I’ve been encouraged by the example set by Triangle of Boston, an organization that provides support, challenge, and opportunity for people with disabilities in eastern Massachusetts. Through the IMPACT:Ability program, Triangle is providing “individuals with the verbal and physical safety and self-defense skills they need to pursue lives of their own choosing”, according to spokesman Jeff Gentry.

In addition to extensive training for individual people with disabilities, IMACT:Ability is working simultaneously with Boston Public Schools, the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, and within Triangle to develop inclusive teams that are focused on increasing abuse awareness, proactively preventing abuse, and encouraging abuse reporting.

IMPACT:Ability hinges on the idea that social change initiatives are most effective when socially influential people express support for new ideas, practices or behavioral changes, hence its ongoing partnerships with key local stakeholders to ensure the success and long-term sustainability of the program.

While Triangle is not a faith-based organization, Gentry told me that his faith greatly affects his approach to the work and his appreciation for the work of his “deeply valued and incredible gifted colleagues."

Gentry spoke passionately about the stories of abuse that have been in the news recently, calling them an “affront to the Imago Dei” – the truth that we are all made in the image of God. Surely, he argues, the physical abuse of people with disabilities is a direct strike upon that image, and verbal abuse is a way of silencing what Henri Nouwen often called "the inner voice of love."

IMPACT:Ability is amplifying, loudly and clearly, that "inner voice of love," and its message is being well received. A cursory glance at its website shows many incredibly positive reviews of the program from participants, parents and organizational partners.

My hope is that more and more organizations throughout the country will be able to emulate the work of IMPACT:Ability, in order to empower people with and without disabilities to build or restore fulfilling relationships within communities, organizations and families.

Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88.

for more info