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Dear readers: An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that Caylee Anthony had an unspecified disability. This information was incorrect, and I have only my faulty memory (and lack of fact checking!) to blame for allowing the post to go up with that error. My apologies to readers, my fellow xoJane contributors, and the Anthony family. --s.e.
Let me tell you a story.
Tracy Latimer was 12 when her father killed her in 1993 by trapping her in his pickup and filling it with carbon monoxide. He sat outside the truck and watched her die. This was after he’d considered giving her an overdose of Valium, or just shooting her in the head, putting her down like a cow that couldn’t get up. Tracy’s mother Laura found her body, and her father Robert initially tried to claim Tracy had “died in her sleep” before confessing.
Tracy had cerebral palsy.
Maybe you didn’t like that story. Have another.
Markea Blakely-Berry was born prematurely, and experienced lifelong cognitive disabilities as a result. Her life, however, was short: her mother starved her to death, and she passed away at age 16. She weighed 43 pounds at the time of her death.
Perhaps that story makes you uncomfortable. These might help.
George Hodgkins was murdered last year by his mother, who shot him and then herself in Sunnyvale, California. He was 22, and autistic.
Kyla Puhle, age 27, was starved to death by both her parents, weighing just short of 27 pounds at the time of her death from dehydration and starvation. She had quadriplegia, scoliosis, and cerebral palsy among other medical complications.
Tom Inglis was given a lethal overdose of heroin by his mother. He sustained significant head injuries that caused cognitive impairments at age 21.
4-year-old Daniel Kirby, an autistic child, was drowned in the bathtub by his mother. She drove the body to the local police department and turned herself in.
Karandeep Arora was strangled to death by his parents at age 18. He was blind, with other unspecified impairments. After they finished, his parents killed themselves.
Leosha Barnett, age 18, weighed 80 pounds by the time her mother finished starving her to death. She had epilepsy and other unspecified medical conditions.
Ajit Singh-Mahal’s mother forced him to drink bleach at age 12. After she was sure her autistic son was dead, she called the police to turn herself in.
Rohit Singh was beaten to death by his father for defecating on his bed. He was seven, and had unspecified physical disabilities.
Gerren Isgrigg was abandoned in the woods by his grandmother at age six. He was there for three days before being discovered, at which point he was dead. Gerren had epilepsy and used a feeding tube for nutrition.
Alex Spourdalakalis was 14 when his mother and grandmother drugged him with sleeping pills, stabbed him multiple times after the sleeping pills didn’t kill him, and then slit hit wrists. He was also autistic.
These are the kinds of stories I read every morning, thanks to the Google Alert I masochistically maintain for stories of disabled people killed by their family members (I have another one for disabled people being murdered in general). Disabled people have enough to fear from society as it is, but it’s chilling to note that one of the biggest potential sources of abuse and violence is family members.
What’s more chilling is that these cases aren’t considered horrific violations of human rights and grounds for serious criminal cases. More often than not, parents get away with their crimes, or receive comparatively light punishments considering the fact that these murders are often premeditated and involve extreme violence.
Instead, people who murder their disabled family members are lauded as heroes. They’re written up as saints for performing euthanasia, or compassionate homicide, or whatever phrase the media want to use. They position themselves as such as well; Tracy Latimer’s father, for example, routinely appears in the media to support parents who have murdered their disabled children.
The media tells us that having a disabled child is hard and there are extenuating circumstances in these cases which must be considered before “judging” parents who murder their children. Disabled people, in this narrative, are burdens to be handled rather than human beings who deserve dignity and respect -- the assumption is that disabled people have no quality of life, and that it’s better to be dead than disabled.
People rush up with excuses; family members were overburdened, they were just looking out for the best interests of the child, family members were “driven” to do it, it was understandable given the circumstances. We’re talking about the murder of a human being.
Say it a little louder, so we can be sure prospective murderers heard you and can start planning their defense.
It’s why I was shocked during the Caylee Anthony case when people actually appeared to care, momentarily, about the fact that a woman had apparently killed her two-year-old disabled daughter. I was fascinated and mesmerized that suddenly, the news was actually covering the homicide of a disabled child, and that it was doing so in a way that was not favorable to the murderer. This was groundbreaking.
And it quickly faded away into the background; once the narrative of the pretty-looking white girl was settled in courts, people returned to what they were doing. And all the while, my Google Alerts kept flowing, telling me who had been murdered most recently, and where, and how.
And the media told me why, too: because disability is the worst, and nondisabled family members are just sparing children future agony.
Do I sound bitter? Do I sound angry? Do I sound like a bad cripple? I'm not surprised. I am bitter, and I am angry, and maybe that makes me the very worst kind of cripple, but maybe it makes me the very best. Because I don't believe that some human lives are worth more than others, and I don't believe that killing human beings as though they're downer cows is a mercy. And this is something that I refuse to shut up about, even though most of the time it feels like no one cares, because I see my people dying at the hands of their family members and it makes me burn with fury.
The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network is calling for hate crimes charges in the death of Alex Spourdalakalis. They’re unlikely to get them, because, in this society, murdering a disabled child isn’t considered a hate crime, it’s considered a mercy.
And before you leap to tell me that I should be thinking about “services,” my work as a disability advocate includes working on improving access to disability services, fighting for caregiver access, addressing the very serious labour issues in the caregiving industry, and ensuring that people aren’t tasked with 24/7, 365 care. But in Alex’ case, and in some many others, the issue wasn’t about lack of services. It was about disability, pure and simple.
Alex was disabled, and his family decided he didn't deserve to live.
ASAN notes that: “His death is not about services, nor is it about the difficulties associated with his disability. Prior to murdering him, Alex's mother was offered and refused services from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.”
Similar interventions have been documented in a number of murder cases involving disabled children. Child and family services have identified abuse risk factors, have attempted to reach out to help families with disabled children, have tried to prevent murder, and they have failed.
To be disabled in this country is to be considered less than a full human being. To be a disabled child, or a disabled adult who needs supportive care, is to know that your life is literally in the hands of the people you rely on to love and care for you. And those people may well think that murdering you would be doing you a favor.