The first person to tell me they’d kill themselves if they ever became disabled was a bus driver, shortly after I’d had neurosurgery that had gone a bit wrong. I was trying to learn how to navigate the world on crutches and I hadn’t even worked out the essentials yet (primarily how to carry a cup of tea). I certainly didn’t have the energy to tell him why that was an appalling thing to say to somebody, or explain why it was the last thing I needed to hear at that moment.
He had imagined what being disabled must be like and automatically concluded that death would be preferable. This is not unusual.
Nobody’s ever told me that they’d rather kill themselves than be gay, or a woman, despite there being hardships associated with those other aspects of my identity, and I’m sure most people would agree that those sentiments would be highly inappropriate. Yet, judging by the number of people who have said the same thing to me as the bus driver did, it seems to be an acceptable thought to have about disability. It’s even thought to be acceptable to share that thought with the disabled stranger who happens to be sitting nearby.
It’s hard not to take it personally when somebody implies that you’d be better off dead. And besides, it’s rude.
So when people in government, people with power, start trying to enshrine the idea that disabled people are better off dead in law, something has really gone wrong in our society.
I didn’t used to think this. I thought that I’d probably want to kill myself if I was in some kind of unbearable situation with regard to my health. I imagined what physical disability or chronic pain would be like and figured it would make life worth ending. But that was before I had truly seen how deeply embroiled disablism is in the messages that non-disabled people get about disability.
And it was before I had realized that when those things happen to you, you pretty much have to just get on with things.
In the U.K. at the moment, the outlook for disabled people is bleak. The Independent Living Fund, which supports some of the most severely disabled people to live independently, is closing; health and social care budgets are being slashed; and benefits are disappearing. Combined with a relentless campaign from the tabloid newspapers about disabled people being "work-shy scroungers," it’s no surprise that disabled people are depressed.
Take the 60 people who have died after their benefits were cut, including Mark Wood who starved to death over four months after being declared "fit for work" and losing his entitlement. Oh, and the fact that the United Nations is undertaking a "high-level inquiry" into the U.K.’s "grave and systemic violations" of disabled people’s rights. That’s a pretty big deal.
In this context, as a community, we probably need better mental healthcare in place than ever before. Combined with a brand-new campaign to reduce suicide by one of the main political parties (with no corresponding boost in funding for mental health services, as far as I can tell), it sounds like suicide prevention is a political top priority in advance of this year’s General Election.
Yet, in the other legislative chamber, the House of Lords, a bill is being debated that will make it legal to assist people to commit suicide. Surely that doesn’t fit a "zero suicide" agenda?
But the law doesn’t want to be able to kill just anybody. No. Just people who are judged to have less than six months to live (even though predicting how long someone will live is an incredibly inexact science and one that, in my experience, doctors do their best to shy away from). Most terminally ill people are, or become, disabled.
This huge contradiction says a lot about the value we place on disabled people’s lives. “We must stop people committing suicide! Oh wait, they’re disabled and want to commit suicide? Sure, hand them the pills.”
While the notion of escaping "unbearable pain" is oft-quoted to justify assisted suicide legislation, the places around the world that have already legalized assisted suicide show stats that differ from what we might at first expect. In fact, we see that pain is only cited in 5 percent of cases in the Netherlands; this is not a frequent reason for wanting to die.
Loss of dignity is another reason people seek assisted suicide. Loss of dignity is dehumanizing and horrible, but the answer is to work to ensure that everybody is enabled to have dignity. It’s not acceptable to simply agree to kill those who don’t.
Feeling like a burden is another. But a society that diminishes our lives to the point where strangers tell us we’d be better off dead (because, yes, some are that direct) is one where we are bound to feel like a burden! A world where our financial support and care are being cut to such a degree that people are losing hope entirely is not one where we can feel dignified.
In this atmosphere, it is simply not safe to introduce assisted suicide laws and expect that the continued bashing of disabled people will not play into a desire to die.
And to approach a non-disabled suicidal person with support and encouragement, but a disabled suicidal person with the means to go ahead and kill themselves, demonstrates a degree of disabilism that should be unbearable for anybody with even a passing interest in social justice and equal rights.
In a truly equal society, where dignity, care, and pain relief were guaranteed, then maybe it would be safe to introduce a law to assist those who want to die to do so. In this mess of a world we live in, no amount of safeguards could truly protect the most vulnerable, suicidal people if the law allowed them to bypass a referral to mental health services and, instead, gave them the means to fulfill the darkest desires of their suicidal depression.