Matthew Rushin’s case is a sad example of what happens when you mix racism and ableism. On January 4, 2019, Matthew, who is autistic and has ADHD, was arrested for an alleged murder attempt. In reality, he was driving his friend to urgent care and on his way back, he crashed into a man who was distractedly looking at his phone. Unfortunately, this was caused by his pedal misapplication - instead of pressing the brake, he floored the gas pedal. When he crashed, he severely injured the other driver. Another driver began screaming at him, asking if he was trying to kill himself. This led to Matthew experiencing echolalia, a condition in which a person will repeat words and phrases when threatened. He couldn’t stop repeating the words “trying to kill myself”. It is estimated that up to 75% of people on the autism spectrum have experienced echolalia, particularly in stressful situations. Yet, these factors were never taken into consideration when the Virginia Beach Police arrested him.
Ableism is discrimination against those with a disability (either physical or intellectual), based on the abhorrent belief that those without disabilities are “better” than those with them. According to Leah Smith, a disability rights activist, when people act extra nice to those who are disabled- it is no longer viewed as an act of kindness. Disabilities don’t mean that disabled people can’t be independent or do things for themselves. Some disabled people say they’ve been told to use essential oils to “help them get better”. People with disabilities do not need fixing, and they are not unhealthy. Being different isn’t a bad thing.
Ableism is common for autistic people to experience. When you add being a person of color, it can be a tough situation to handle. Racism has always existed, long before the first incident to be reported in the media. Black people have continuously had to face discrimination their entire lives. Whether it be a dirty stare or a racist comment, it is common for Black people to be accustomed to not being tolerated in this society. When a person of color does the same action as a white person, it's automatically because of their skin color. Now, for those who have autism, bullying is common, but when certain behaviors of an autistic person are demonstrated, your skin color becomes relevant. When a white person on the spectrum acts up, they are seen as fragile. However, when similar actions are carried out by someone who is Black, it may lead them to get arrested or be brutally beaten. Of course, white autistic people have the possibility of facing deadly discrimination. However, adding racism on top of one's condition will make them even more of a target.
There is no doubt a difference exists in the treatment of those who are white and POC with disabilities. In 2015, in the same neighborhood where Matthew was arrested, a white autistic young man, who did not have his license, drove recklessly. He hit 14 cars and almost killed a pregnant woman with her five-year-old son. He drove off, and when police later came to his house to question him, he denied having any interaction with those cars. The charges against him were dropped, and all he was required to do was pay a small $30 fee at court.
Now that you’ve heard Matthew’s story, I am sure you can see a mighty difference in these endings. In Matthew’s case, none of the 17 Virginia Beach police officers followed standard operation procedures or displayed any understanding of handling a mentally distressed individual. In the second story, although more damage was done and more people were affected, he paid no consequences to his actions. Matthew faced a 5o year prison sentence for a nonfatal car accident. How is that fair? Matthew’s freedom was instantly taken away and taken straight to prison for a charge that never should have been made. It’s undeniable that both racism and ableism interact.
Donate to Matthew’s legal fees:
Sign the petition demanding Matthew’s release: https://www.change.org/p/ralph-s-northam-matthew-rushin-autistic-college-student-odu/sign
Help Matthew’s family bring him home:
Mark R Herring: Attorney General
Kelly Thomasson: Secretary of the Commonwealth
Brian Moran: Secretary of Public Safety
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
Virginia Parole Board:
Tonya D. Chapman: Chair of the Virginia Parole Board