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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Huffington Post Misleading Reporting on Thomas Young

The Huffington Post published a story yesterday entitled "Thomas Young, Dying Iraq Veteran Pens Last Letter To Bush, Cheney on War's 10th Anniversary".  Simply put, the article is dreadful and I will not provide a link. The Huffington Post article is superficial, devoid of analysis. It is spin at its best. I suspect similar articles will abound in the mainstream press in the weeks to come. The dye has been cost, a formula has created. The spin doctors are hard at work. Proponents of assisted suicide will characterize Young as heroic and brave. Groups such as Compassion and Choices will argue in the absence of assisted suicide legislation the best we can do to help men like Young who is clearly suffering is VSED.  Liberal anti war activists will use Young's death to illustrate that war is hell and altruistic men like Young needlessly die. In short, Young has a veritable cheering squad behind him. He is a political pawn with much larger social forces packaging a story to meet their ends.

One thing is utterly absent from mainstream news stories: a disability rights perspective. No mention is made of the inherent problems associated with VSED or how the Veterans Administration has failed Young. These are meaty issues worth discussing in detail. But this is exactly how the hype surrounding Young is not being discussed. The Huffington Post article will not let facts get in the way of good melodrama and professionally spins the facts. In absence of analysis the article states that after Young's spinal cord injury "he would suffer a number of medical setbacks that allowed him to survive only with the help of extensive medical procedures and the care of his wife, Claudia". I do not dispute the fact Young has had serious complications associated with spinal cord injuries. I know all too well what he has experienced because I have lived with paralysis for over 35 years. I also know Young's struggles with paralysis is not unique nor are the serious complications he has experienced. Young fits into a small class of people: those with a spinal cord injury that express a desire to die. Precious few commit suicide. The vast majority of people after a period of time adapt. They lead ordinary lives. They get married, have children, get divorced, and move on with life. This is not a story that will sell newspapers or end war, or get assisted suicide legislation passed into law.

The stories I have read  about Young identify him as a "dying Iraq war veteran". This is extremely misleading.
Young is dying because he has decided to end his life. He is not terminally ill. He is simply disabled. He is going to commit suicide. And that is exactly what VSED is--a legal way of committing suicide. The unspoken cultural subtext reveals a deeply ingrained bias and destructive stereotype: one is better off dead than disabled. The more severe the disability the more logical it is to express a desire to die. The skeptic could accuse me of creating my own spin. I am afterall opposed to assisted suicide legislation and on the Board of Not Dead Yet. So yes I do indeed have an ax to grind; however my ax is not wielded to end other people's lives. My views are grounded in the gritty reality of every day life as a paralyzed man. My reality and Young's is based on a social failure, that is our bodies, our very existence, is not valued. It is rare a day goes by when I am not reminded of my stigmatized identity. The social abuse I experience ranges wildly from minor inconvenience to gross violations of my civil rights. On any given day I  could encounter a blocked curb cut or similar architectural barrier. I also could encounter people who insist and "helping" me or a stranger telling me that they would prefer to be dead than use a wheelchair. I could be refused entry into a restaurant or store.

The point I am trying to get across is that without the appropriate social supports I truly understand why a person such as Young could conclude death is preferable to life with a disability. Living with paralysis can be hard. Just the other day I looked down at my stomach and experienced severe and debilitating rolling spasms. I could not eat, drink or work. This lasted for many hours and suddenly disappeared. As I looked down at my stomach I thought of Young. Regardless of the severity of one's physical deficits the fact remains our society prefers to rely on an antiquated understanding of disability. Disability is first and foremost bad. Disability is feared. The ADA is not civil rights legislation but an onerous burden imposed by the federal government. Until the antiquated  and destructive stereotypes associated with disability are rejected people like Young will die. Young's bodily deficits are not at fault. Rather it is the failure of our elected political leaders, the Veterans Administration and our health care system. All these entities failed Young. When I think of Young as I have often done in the last few days I hope someone from within the disability rights community can reach out to him. I have tried and failed to find his contact information. I desperately want to tell him about how wonderful and wildly unpredictable  life is. One can live with paralysis, pain, and a degree of dependence on others. It is a different life for sure one based on situated autonomy. My life and Young's has value. This is the story I want to read about.

1 comment:

Jo Kelly said...

Bill I can hear your anguish in your writing. I wish someone with a brain in Washington would read this and just "GET IT"! What the hell is wrong with this world - it makes me so sad.