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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Daniel James Death and the Dangerous Public Response

I continue to scour British newspapers for stories about Daniel James. Based on my reading, the vast majority of people continue to praise James parents as "courageous" and "selfless". What has been left unquestioned are the implications of James decision to commit suicide in terms of the lives of people with a disability. If Mr. James is perceived as having tremendous inner strength to end his own life and had the support of his loving parents what does this say about people with disabilities that choose to continue to lead rich and productive lives? In the estimation of one woman, Sue Garner-Jones, she is now perceived as selfish for merely wanting to live. In an article in the Liverpool Daily Post Garner-Jones stated that "People make their own decisions about how to live their life. But there's a lot of talk about bravery and courage for people who are opting out of living their lives. I didn't like the inverse of that". The controversy that surrounds the death of Mr. James has Garner-Jones and many disabled people worried. According to Garner-Jones, "I am seriously concerned that this might have a detrimental effect on anyone who lives with a disability, or cares for someone in this situation, especially since Mr. and Mrs. James referring to his life as a tetraplegic as second class".

When I read Garner-Jones words I was delighted. A voice in the wilderness has spoken out and cut to the heart of the debate about Mr. James death. People with disabilities are not second class citizens. Disabled people have the right to live and enjoy the same civil rights as those that can walk. Those of us who are disabled are not selfish nor are we a burden on society or a drain on the health care system. Paralyzed people are not terminally ill--they have a physical deficit that is compounded by society. As one who is disabled and proud I know that disability is a social construct and that the real problem is not paralysis but the obstacles placed on top of it. If you want to talk about bravery I suggest you forget about Mr. James. To me, he and his parents are cowards who chose an easy way out. The people that are brave are like Garner-Jones who gets up every morning, goes to work, and will most likely encounter needless bigotry at some point during the day. The bigotry Garner-Jones encounters is disability based and relentless. It is based on the false assumption that she is somehow inferior, a tragically flawed human, because she cannot walk. Garner-Jones will be stared at, belittled, degraded, and ignored. Like Garner-Jones and many others, I know far too much about this sort of "spoiled identity" to use the phraseology of Erving Goffman. Tragically, Mr. James will never learn about this nor will he ever be able to assert his civil rights. This takes a kind of bravery James and his parents did not possess.

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