It’s almost midnight on the east coast, and today was the Disability Day of Mourning for 2015. This event began several years ago after the murder of George Hodgins, when a group of disabled activists, several of whom I call friends, realized that the media and the world spent more time sympathizing with the people who killed him than with the victim of said murder. The newspapers and other media reported his murder with the information that he was autistic, and at least one “autism advocacy” organization completely omitted his name (a point they rectified later with an apology).
I wish I had the chance to know them. I wish that they could have grown up, grown older, had engaged with the world in the way they would have felt comfortable with, and been offered the supports that they needed. Not what their parents needed, but what they needed.
There are so many good parents out there that as a parent, I’m sure it seems unfair to you for autistic and otherwise disabled people to focus on these tragedies as signs of a bigger problem, one that involves parents and caretakers specifically. It would be one thing if these parents were always condemned by the media and the culture in which we live, but unfortunately, that is not the case. I have been made aware of cases like this for years now and every time, I find comment after comment after comment saying that I need to put myself in the parent’s shoes because they were overwhelmed or mentally ill or any number of things. Well I am Autistic and I am mentally ill and I am hard of hearing and I am a parent to two wonderful Autistic children and I have plenty of stress in my life, some even caused by autistic-related things itself (a phenomenon I call “your autism is poking my autism”) that has specifically to do with being an autistic parent of autistic children, but amazingly, I still don’t understand the vantage point of murdering your children because you are stressed out.
I could make so many comparisons with murders of children that have been covered extensively by the media. I’m from Florida, and I cannot forget the way that the media portrayed Casey Anthony. I cannot forget the way that the entire community talked about what a horrible person she was, and how she deserved to burn for her daughter’s death. I wonder if they would feel the same way if Caylee had been autistic. I suspect no.
I have read story after story where the children were neurotypical and/or abled, and whose mothers were not defended when they went missing or were murdered. The stories of Susan Smith and Andrea Yates stick out in my mind, though I do know that there are more out there. I remember there being a small bit of sympathy for Yates because of the implication that her husband withheld psychiatric care from her. Even still, the majority of media reports and comments on said reports were inflammatory and said things like “she deserves to rot”.
The fact of the matter is this – autistic lives are devalued in society. We have whole organizations devoted to telling the world what a horrible thing it is to have someone like us in their lives. We have campaigns where we light things up blue, but we don’t for one second think of what supports need to exist. We don’t consider that autism lasts more than 18 years and that every autistic person needs support, regardless of age. We have these false allies, who think that they’re doing good by spreading “awareness” but who don’t actually consider our voices or what we need. They give themselves pats on the back but then turn around and say that we need to listen to both sides of the story when people like us are murdered.
The problem is that the dead can’t speak. We can do our best and advocate for ourselves and for people like us so these sorts of murders don’t happen again, but the people who very much need to give their side of the story are already gone. It’s too late for them.
So what do we do? We mourn the loss of our disabled siblings, which is what I’ve done today. I was not personally able to attend a vigil, but I read off their names. I read more about each of them, at least what was available. I mourned the loss of the people they were, the potential that was cut short for a variety of reasons, but all boiling down to the devaluation of disabled lives.
And tomorrow I will look to the future. I will do my part to fight the culture that says that these actions are okay, that wishes the death penalty on Casey Anthony but who doesn’t think that Dorothy Spourdalakis really deserves much punishment, if any at all.