Robert Schiavelli came up with a unique way of dealing with the verbal abuse from his neighbor: he laughs it off. The 42-year-old man has neurological impairments and experiences frequent seizures, something that’s made him a target for his neighbor, who taunts him and hurls slurs like “retard” at him. After years of abuse, Schiavelli’s approach is certainly creative, and it certainly highlights both the ludicrousness and childishness of his neighbor’s behavior.
However, his ever-creative neighbor has come up with yet another way to torment Mr. Schiavelli. He phoned the police to call in a noise complaint, and now Schiavelli’s facing a summons to court and multiple fines.
He could pay up to $500 in fines or spend 30 days in jail, a harsh punishment for something that seems so benign. As Schiavelli himself said at his arraignment, “I didn’t know it was a crime to laugh out a window.” Astoundingly, a judge is actually taking the case seriously, while Schiavelli and his mother are appalled that the situation has come to this point; one might suspect, given the bad history between the defendant and his neighbor, that the police reports may have been of a retaliatory nature.
While you might think this case deserves an “oddly enough” writeup of curious legal cases worth a few chuckles, it’s actually no laughing matter. What Schiavelli is facing if his claims are true is a sustained campaign of harassment and abuse, and such activities can be devastating for their victims. In 2007, for example, Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her disabled daughter after a harassment campaign escalated without intervention from police officers. As in Schiavelli’s case, the harassment centered around her daughter’s disabilities.
Disability activist Nicola Clark took an informal survey to assess the prevalence of hate speech encountered by the disability community, and her results were stark. 84% of disabled people and care providers reported encountering hate speech in person, illustrating how common it is to be targeted for abuse just for existing when you’re disabled. Almost 10% said they “accepted disability hate speech as a part of life,” an inevitable sense of surrender to what seems impossible to escape.
For people with visible disabilities like Robert Schiavelli, encountering hateful commentary is unfortunately all too common. His response was novel, and his neighbor’s retaliation demonstrates how firmly his neighbor believes that he has the right to harass Mr. Schiavelli simply for being disabled. His neighbor isn’t alone in that thought, apparently, given the high incidence of reports of hate speech and hate crimes against disabled people reported worldwide.
Words have immense capacity for harm, especially when a situation escalates to become physically abusive, as can occur when bullies feel they are not getting the response they want out of their targets. Mr. Schiavelli may laugh in the face of hate speech because he feels like he doesn’t know what else to do, but socially, we should be asking why he has to deal with hate speech at all.
Photo credit: Chris Huggins