Thursday, 2 March 2017

Disability Day of Mourning 2017


March 1st is over here in New Zealand and I've seen disappointingly little about the significance of today for the disability community, but here's a few thoughts from me about Disability Day of Mourning and why it exists and matters.

[Image: Slightly blurred close up photo of angel statue seen at cemeteries with a blue filter in background, overlaid with a translucent white circle and the words 'Disability Day of Mourning' in large font]

The disability day of mourning is to reflect on the disabled people who have lost their lives at the hands of those who were supposed to be caring for them, often family members, particularly parents.

The stats on this are vague as the data doesn't tend to go much deeper than general statistics on filicide with the US Department of Justice reporting that 61% of murdered children in a 25 year period up to 2002 were a result of filicide, with an additional 6% by other relatives, the rest being by other people, many being caregivers, and that evidence suggests that the risk is 3-6 times higher for disabled children than nondisabled children.  This didn't include the killing by neglect through withholding the necessities of life - including needed medication, which often goes un-or-under-reported.  

There are hundreds if not thousands or more individual cases globally.  Clicking through the links are lists of victims from New Zealand, and Australia

In 2012, several disability rights organisations including Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, National Council of Independent Living, and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), started the Disability Day of Mourning in response to the murder of an autistic man, George Hodgins by his mother.  His death and those of countless others are marked on Disability Day of Mourning, March 1st, with vigils.  The ASAN report the purpose of the vigils as being "to mourn those losses, bring awareness to these tragedies, and demand justice and equal protection under the law for all people with disabilities".

These deaths are tragedies in and of themselves, but the issues go much further and deeper than that.  There is a common and pervasive underlying systemic factor that enables these events to keep on happening: ableism in the form of the idea that disabled lives are not worth living, or that we are less than/sub-human.  These murders are often reported as 'mercy-killings', with a great deal of sympathy toward the killer or killers, and the killers are often given light, lenient sentences if they are even charged at all.  
"We see the same pattern repeating over and over again. A parent kills their disabled child. The media portrays these murders as justifiable and inevitable due to the “burden” of having a disabled person in the family. If the parent stands trial, they are given sympathy and  comparatively lighter sentences, if they are sentenced at all. The victims are disregarded, blamed for their own murder at the hands of the person they should have been able to trust the most, and ultimately forgotten. And then the cycle repeats." - ASAN
This is a pattern that's been called out for years by disability advocates:
and a case right here in New Zealand as recently as this year, that of young autistic woman, Ruby Knox, killed by her mother, who was only sentenced to four years imprisonment.

While I understand and agree that many of these cases could be avoided with better support, respite, and social services, I cringe at the excuses being made for the perpetrators of these crimes and for the lack of consequences, and worse yet, the lack of anything tangible and noticeable actually being done to rectify the issues of lack of available supports (or lack of awareness of them).  It speaks to a deeply ingrained sense of devaluation and dehumanisation of disabled people and it makes me eternally grateful for the parents and family I have that I'm still here, and terrified for those less fortunate than I in that respect.  This isn't ok.  

ASAN have a great toolkit for anti-filicide available on their website, which you can download here.  In it, are some great tips for prevention and to reduce the social acceptance and normalisation of violence, neglect, abuse, and murder against disabled people:
1. Change the conversation
Center the victim. Condemn the murderer. Refuse to “understand,” excuse, justify, minimize, or normalize a parent killing their child. Refuse to accept this. Refuse to allow this to become our new normal.
2. Prosecute
Call for these crimes to be prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law, similarly to other filicides. Demand that people with disabilities have equal protection under the law. Consider lobbying your state legislature to include disability in your state’s hate crimes statute, or to adopt one if your state does not have one.
3. End ableism
Challenge ableism (anti-disability bias and prejudice) everywhere you see it. Challenge the idea that it is better to be dead than disabled, that disabled people are a drain on society, that disability means suffering, and that disabled lives are not worth living. Promote inclusion, community integration, and acceptance.
4. Self-report
If you think you are going to harm your child or adult relative, turn yourself in. Call 911 or child protective services and say “I am thinking about killing my child.”
5. Community reporting
If someone you know is talking about killing their child, turn them in. Often in the wake of a filicide people come forward to say that days or months before the murder, the perpetrator made a comment to them suggesting that they were contemplating homicide: “I’m despairing about my child’s condition - I think this is the end for him,” or “kids like mine should be put down,” or even “I am thinking about killing my child.” In addition, report any indications you might see of child abuse or child neglect. Abuse and neglect of children and adults with disabilities is very common and extremely under-reported, and many filicides are preventable escalations.
Don't let this happen anymore.  Don't be implicit to it.  Speak out.  Fight back.

Next year I am thinking of being more proactive in relation to Disability Day of Mourning and am considering seeing about holding a vigil in my local city.  ASAN also have resources for doing so if you're thinking of doing the same.

Additional resources:

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