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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Daniel James in the UK News

The death of Daniel Jones I wrote about yesterday has been officially sent to the Crown Prosecution Service Complex Casework Unit. This special unit deals with high-profile complex crimes. A CPC spokesman has stated that "The head of the Complex Casework Unite will review the police file and then make a decision on whether to proceed with a prosecution or not".

I have no idea whether Mr. James parents will be prosecuted. Frankly, I do not care. What I am interested in is the debate that is now raging in newspapers, magazines, and blogs such as this one. What I have been struck by is the overwhelming negative description of disabled bodies that appear in newspaper accounts. I have given up trying to count the number of times I have read "wheelchair-bound", ""wrecked body", "helplessly crippled", and other derogatory phrases. It is abundantly obvious that in Britain the disabled body is not valued and the lives of disabled people are considered markedly inferior. In fact, a common theme in some news reports are that death is preferable when compared to life with a disability. This enabled some to portray Mr. James parents as martyrs or saints. For example in the Herald Colette Douglas Home wrote a story entitled "Was Daniel's Death the Final Act of Parental Love?". She questioned how she would react if her son had a similar injury to Daniel James. "How would his father and I have coped if he'd been condemned to immobility at the peak of fitness?" Homes went on to to state that "sporting men of 23 are like unbroken colts. They are vital, forceful personalities; physical creatures with boundless energy. Their heads are filled with dreams and ambitions". At no point in my life have I ever felt "condemned" by my inability to walk or move my legs. The vitality that Homes describes has more to do with youthful enthusiasm than sporting life. Indeed, it appears as though only physically fit young men are capable of dreaming big and possess boundless energy. This outlook she assumes is beyond the ability and imagination of disabled people.

The most disturbing aspect of the news reports about Mr. James death is the idea that suicidal thoughts and disability go hand in hand. That is it is perfectly reasonable for disabled people to consider suicide. In fact, many reports I read characterized Mr. James attempts at suicide a "normal" reaction to spinal cord injury. For instance, Mr. James mother is quoted as postulating if one "had a son, daughter, father, mother, who could not walk, had no hand function, was incontinent, and relied on 24 hour care for every basic need and they had asked for her support what would they have done?" Placed in Mrs. James situation I would have been anguished yet suicide would not have been within my realm of choices for my son. Mr. James was injured just 18 months and was not terminally ill. He had everything to live for that any other 23 year old looks forward to who can walk. Again, this line of reasoning is based on the assumption death is preferable to life as a disabled person. Let's try changing the variables and see if thoughts of suicide are considered "normal": What if a child was clinically depressed, bipolar, or raped? Would suicide be considered an option? Not a chance, in fact the parents that suggest such a course of action would likely end up in jail.

Why is death preferable to disability? I have not a clue as to why this line of reasoning is so widely accepted. Perhaps it is easier and cheaper than insuring social services exist that enable disabled people to live a rich and full life. Death is after all a definitive "solution". What I keep returning to is not the discussion about the parents role in their son's death but the social failure that enabled it to take place. This social failure will not garner any headlines, prompt people to get into a fierce debate about quality of life issues, or make people turn on the TV news. The only way to change the social perception of disability and prevent other deaths such as Mr. James is for society to accept and incorporate disabled people into mainstream society. For that to happen, accessible and affordable homes and mass transportations must exist. Barriers to inclusion in the work force and in schools for disabled people must be stopped. In short, disability must become ordinary, a part of life for some but certainly not all. When I can leave my own front door and not worry about being accosted socially than I will know equality exists. Until all disabled people share that same sense of equality needless deaths like Mr. James will continue. This is nothing more and nothing less than a human rights issue. This is not sexy but the reality that I know, a knowledge based on dealing with disability based prejudice for the last thirty years.


FridaWrites said...

It seems to me that suicidal thoughts in this regard are a result of depression and of the realities of adjusting to life changes--including dealing with the health care system, not being able to get out as much initially, dealing with disablism--rather than to being paralyzed.

I wonder if his parents ever tried to treat his depression or suicidal thoughts, as they would for any other nondisabled child, or if they just saw it as a natural consequence of the disability itself.

The only reason I've ever felt suicidal from disability is from physical pain--which calls for better pain management.

william Peace said...

Frida, Based on my reading of British newspapers I suspect James received the expected help at Stoke Mandeville. An article in the Timesonline by Matt Hampson discusses a meeting he had with Dan James. Hampson is a quadriplegic and spoke to James and encouraged him to move on with life. Obviously Hampson's words were not helpful. I have no idea what the parents were thinking. Like you, thoughts of suicide are likely tied to social consequences of disability rather than paralysis itself. The entire story is depressing, everyone involved was hurt. In this regard it reminds me of the Ashley X case that was similarly terrible.

Jenny Junipero said...

Just one more step and this is going to be justified as an 'honor' killing.

The Goldfish said...

In fairness, I think depression is a fairly common response to functional loss; many of us do lose stuff beyond what we lose politically and socially when we acquire an impairment. The future is no longer what it might have been; that takes some coming to terms with.

However, a fair number of people feel depressed and suicidal following other sorts of bereavement, the loss of a job, bankruptcy or the breakdown of a relationship - lives can appear to be ruined for a time. But as you suggest, if one such person kills themselves, we don't shrug and say, "Well they're better off" - we recognise it as a tragic waste.

william Peace said...

Goldfish, Yes, depression is common after a sudden spinal cord injury. But I tend to think this depression is less the result of paralysis than it has to do with the rehabilitation setting and knowledge that one's life is about to spin in an entirely different direction. Rehab is hard work and far from cutting edge technology that MDs and society adores.
Jennifer, There is no honor in killing one's child or anyone else for that matter. I wish all people understood this, especially those that advocate assisted suicide.

Derek Handley said...

Why do people see death as preferable to disability? I think it's partially because of a huge lack of education regarding disability. Most people's experience of disabled people comes down to seeing the occasional disabled person on the bus or train, or in the street. This person may be struggling or in need of help with something, reinforcing their perception... I can't count the number of times in my life I've been told how difficult it must be to be in a wheelchair.

Being in a wheelchair isn't easy, but it hasn't stopped me from working, traveling, doing sports, loving, living, writing, reading, or anything else I've wanted to do. It might make things a little more complicated, I might need someone with me, but it doesn't stop me.

It seems to me that the biggest tragedy in the Daniel James story is that the people around him gave up on him when he gave up on himself.

william Peace said...

I must confess I am sick of "educating" the general public about disability. The ADA is almost two decades old and yet wheelchair access is still a problem, the unemployment rate of almost 70% remans unchanged, and I encounter bigotry and ignorance every time I access the mass transportation system. I am all for education but it seems to me that the average person either does not care about disability rights or is resistant to thinking beyond accepted stereotypes. I guess I am a bit cranky this morning!