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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Murder and Hate Crimes Against People with a Disability

I do not write that often about two subjects disability related: organ transplants and the murder of people with a disability at the hands of their own family. I find these subjects too disturbing to devote a significant amount of time to. I know with certainty that I will never receive an organ transplant. The reason for this bothers me: my existence is not valuable. Few people with a disability get an organ transplant and I no longer have any trust in the system that decides who lives and dies waiting for an organ. The stories I read are just too horrible for me to deconstruct. The other topic, a subject I have never addressed on my blog, is the murder of people with a disability. I have discussed the  legal prosecution of family members such as 23 year old Daniel James whose parents took him to Dignitas and facilitated his suicide in 2008. Cases of assisted suicide, specifically when family members help a sibling, parent, or child with a disability die, are framed as mercy killings. These stories abound and few people who kill their disabled loved ones are ever convicted of a crime. While I consider these murders hate crimes such a position is unusual. I am not alone in my thinking. People in the neurodiversity community, too often the victim in so called mercy killings, have been particularly vocal about the murder of people with disabilities. Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) is calling for the recent death of Alex Spourdalakalis to be considered a hate crime. I wish them well but do not expect ASAN to succeed. The fact is killing a person with a disability is socially acceptable. It is an act of mercy. The murdered person is put out of their perceived suffering and the murderer is no longer burdened by the care required to keep a family member alive. It is a win win situation. For those that think my views are harsh I suggest you read S. E. Smith in XO Jane.

I do not know too much about S.E. Smith aside from the fact I find her writing about disability and feminism to be top notch. Her most recent article in XO Jane, my favorite online feminist magazine, is particularly pointed. I share Smith's rage. Exactly, how many people with a disability need to be murdered before people and the mass media get the idea: the murder of people with a disability is often a hate crime. How many people know the names Tracy Latimore, Markea Blakely-Berry, George Hodgkins, Ky;a Puhle, Tom Inglis, Daniel Kirby, Karandeep Arora, Leosha Barnett, Ajit Singh-Mahal, Gerren Isgrigg, and most recently Alex Spouralakalis. The violence is shocking. The murders are tortuous and premeditated. Children with disabilities have been starved to death by their parents. People with a disability have been shot and stabbed to death by friends, family and strangers. Murder suicides are not uncommon.  Smith soberly notes the biggest potential source of abuse for people with a disability is their own family. And what happens when people with a disability are abused or murdered? The family members who kill their own flesh and blood are lauded as heroes. The message is not complex: death is preferable to life with a disability. Smith maintains the narrative is consistent. I agree. She rails:

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 fact is hate crimes against people with a disability are commonplace.  One needs to look beyond the statistics however because crimes against people with a disability are not reported. In 2011 the FBI reported that there were 6,216 single bias incidents. Of those bias crimes reported 0.9 % were disability based. There is obviously a profound disconnect here. Simply put, people with a disability do not report hate crimes. Even when a bias crime is reported by a person with a disability it is usually classified as being an incident of abuse. On the rare instance when a disability hate crime is reported in the news, blame is levied on the lack of "social services".  Is there a gross lack of social services for people with a disability? In a word yes. Is the lack of services the source of violence? In a word, no. Smith ends her powerful essay by stating Alex Spourdalakalis family decided he did not 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 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. 
Read Smith's words carefully. I did and I shuddered. I shuddered because not long ago I was entirely dependent upon my family to care for me in 2010/2011. My family cared for me and loved me. Looking back at the time when I had no choice but to be bed-bound, I have many regrets. I was miserable and let my family and the world know it. I deeply regret this. I understand why I was miserable and depressed. I was in an impossible situation. My life went from fully independent to utterly dependent overnight. Today, I know I was lucky. And this too is why I shudder when I read about the murder of people with a disability and rampant social social abuse. People with a disability die of social neglect daily and some are murdered. The exact numbers are unknown. The best indication we have as to the numbers of people with a disability who are abused can be found in accounts at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 54 million Americans with disabilities experience serious violence at a rate more than twice that of the general population. I believe this is a human rights tragedy that is being swept under the carpet. It is too horrible to contemplate because it can happen to anyone with or without a disability. For the odds are good if you live long enough you too will become dependent upon others. As a culture, we shun dependent or non productive people. We place the elderly in nursing homes. We create groups homes for those with cognitive and physical disabilities. People with mental illnesses are sent to institutions. Schools have resource rooms to isolate students with special needs whose presence is upsetting to other children. We have "special transportation" in the form of short buses to stigmatize children with a disability. 

Let me ask the following: Who is Matthew Shepard? I would bet most American adults that follow the news in a cursory manner can answer this question. I bet some would even recall that in 2009 President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. Let me ask another question that I suspect takes one into unchartered territory: does the aforementioned legislation that expanded federal hate crime law include disability? The answer is yes, an affirmative that would puzzle the average person. When we think hate crime images of the KKK and a burning cross come to mind. Does disability figure into the equation? Not at all.  So let me end with another question: Who is Jennifer Daugherty? If you do not know the answer please google her name. Read about this woman and then tell me hate crimes against people with a disability do not exist. 


Pippy said...

The mother of Alex killed her son and should be held accountable as in any other murder.
From what I understand, the services offered to the mother for Alex's care was to have her sign her rights away to have any say in his care so that the state could put him in a state mental institution and medicate him until he died as there is no known cure for his severe autism and mood disorders. But, I guess in that situation, he would still be technically alive....

Alex had medical issues that the medical community refused to help him with, such as digestive and GI pain, because of his violent tendencies. In some of the pictures released of Alex we can see his "medical care". He is stripped down and tied to his hospital bed. I understand that his years of violent outbursts would leave his mother and caretaker bruised and beaten.

I believe that calling Alex's murder a hate crime is not understanding the entire situation. It is more fitting to call this an act of ugly desperation by a mother who saw no way out for her and her son.

Murder, yes. Hate, no.

Matthew Smith said...

I wrote an article about Alex's murder (with links to several other articles): Alex Spourdalakis: An Atrocity, not a Tragedy.

As for taking Alex away from his mother, given what she proved herself capable of, that might have resulted in him getting better care than being strapped to a bed for the cameras, and then murdered. Illinois's social services are starting to look like the infamous Haringey here in the UK (which allowed two young children to be murdered by their families in a few years).

william Peace said...

Pippy, I went to the FBI website and easily found the following:

Defining a Hate Crime
A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.

To me Spourdalakis is as defined by the FBI a hate crime.

Matthew, I am sorry I missed your post for some reason. Thanks for the link and as always, well done.

Pippy said...

Out of all that I wrote in response to your blog your only response to me is to quote the FBI website?

We are both intelligent enough to know that what may be written as law does not mean it is morally correct or correct all the time. This is why we have trials. There is also a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. You are obviously embracing the letter of the law. I am looking deeper in to the spirit of the law. This murder, as heinous and disgusting as it is, does not seem to be done out of hatred for Alex because of his disability.

FridaWrites said...

Smith is a fabulous writer and writes/educates on a wider range of topics than anyone else I've read.

As an FYI, Smith prefers a gender neutral writing identity--not he or she, and suggests the pronoun "ou":

william Peace said...

Pippy, I hesitate to comment on the details of your comment and the circumstances of Alex's death because the nuerodiversity community is far more knowledgable than I am. No slight was intended. I agree there is a vast difference between the letter of the law and its spirit. The ADA as I have noted many times is the law of the land but holds no social mandate. I quoted the FBI definition because I think it qualifies as a hate crime. You stated it was a murder, yes, hate no. So yes I was commenting on the letter of the law alone.

Moose said...

The whole assisted suicide thing is not very black and white on my planet.

I honestly feel that if someone feels they are physically suffering, with no change possible or likely, and want to end their life, they should be free to do so, and die with dignity.

The things that scare me is when it is not clear that someone wants to die yet and others seem to make the decision for them.

I think this is why it is very important for everyone who is able to do so to have a living will and to make sure that there are copies with doctors and family members.

The biggest problem, to state the obvious, is with those who aren't able to make such documents or state their preference clearly. That's when the line blurs between help and harm.

FWIW one of my greatest fears is to want to be able to die with dignity and have some asshole doctor override my wishes. It's happened before, it will happen again. Thankfully my family supports my beliefs.

Melanie Suzanne Gerber said...

Once again your profound wisdom amazes me. The similarities and differences you raise between hate crimes against the disabled versus other groups is thought provoking.
Just a few days ago my brother-in-law and I were discussing hate crimes against the gay community. The main difference between hate crimes of the disabled is that the abuser may be a family member while in the gay community, it is usually a stranger or non family member who is the abuser.

Middle Child said...

I share your anger. When the medical criminals caused so much damage to my husband that he began dying - nobody seemed to think it was worth doing anything about. Now 6 years after he was killed I am still throwing the shocking list of abuses down on the table and people seem unable to see the crime. At his funeral, one of his horrible nurses said to me "Well, you're a free woman now" I was in such a fog of grief that i didn't react. I remember my face felt strangely numb. Another , a man we had employed to do work I couldn't manage - outside - who we considered a friend asked me "Did I think I would marry again." At the funeral of the man I have loved all 35 years and still do. It was seen as if "Oh well, thats over, you did your best old girl, move on." I can no more move on than fly to the moon because I saw and understand now exactly how he was treated and I burn with anger...a righteous anger which even the Dalai Lama recognises as being needed. bill is it okay if I share this with everyone I can please...and once again thank you.

Middle Child said...

I did a bit of a hunt about in Australian sites and found this one... its 2000 but was hard to find anything much which dealt with the disability aspect of hate crimes

Middle Child said...

Dr (now ) mark Sherry the author is disabled...I didn't realise till I hunted about - no wonder he has such insight

william Peace said...

Frida, Yes, S.E. Smith likes to referred to in gender neutral terms. I respect that desire. I followed the long thread about the use of ou on XO Jane. In theory S.E. Smith is correct. But we do not live in a world of theory. Like it or not gender is narrowly conceived as male female. Based on the XO Jane thread of some 500+ comments S.E. Smith turned some of the discussion about hate crimes into a discussion of the pronoun ou. This was not in my opinion helpful to the discussion that I wanted to see take place. S.E. Smith remains an insightful writer I admire.
Melanie, You are too kind! The more we connect disability with other hate crimes the better. Sadly hate crimes are common and yet too few make the connection between disability and horrible violence. When I think about people with a disability my first thoughts that come to mind include poverty, alienation, physical and social abuse. Sobering.
Moose, We do not need assisted suicide legislation. Your concerns can be addressed a myriad of different ways. Hospice care is available at the end of life. Terminal sedation is legal as well. I would suggest you think about something I call situated autonomy. Autonomy can be created in a multitude of ways. I have been working on this concept for a while and will put up a post soon.
MiddleChild, What a great link. A bit dated for sure but a great piece of writing. Of course you can share what I write here with others. Forward it as widely as possible. Frankly, Australia concerns me. It looks like the country will embrace assisted suicide legislation.

tigrlily said...

I came to the movement to oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide through working on abuse of people with disabilities. In 1988 I co-founded a support group for disabled women survivors of child abuse, and we began to examine the interrelationships between gender and disability.

In researching the incidence of abuse, I found few people working in that domain. At the time, Nora Baladarian and Dick Sobsey were the leaders in the field, and the numbers were staggering. Depending on the disability group, the incidence of abuse was 2 to 10 times higher than for non-disabled people. People who are deaf or have cognitive or psychiatric disabilities are most likely to be abused, both in institutional settings and in the family/community.

In 1997 I did an informal study of treatment of parents who kill their disabled children by the criminal justice system. I found that parents who kill disabled children are treated more leniently than parents who kill non-disabled children in every aspect of the system. Police, coroners, prosecutors, judges, juries, the media and the general public were all swayed by the belief that the lives of disabled victims were less valuable and even that parents were doing them a favor by killing them.

These same attitudes drive the push for assisted suicide and euthanasia.

In January of 2003 I was assaulted by a big bully. After picking on his girlfriend during the subway commute, the brute began making comments about me and my guide dog when we got off at the same train station. I ignored the remarks, but as he kept going, I felt I needed to show him (and his girlfriend) that it was possible to stand up to this bully. I turned around with my guide and marched back to him, and looking up (way up!) into his face I told him it was not OK to insult me and my dog. I walked off and took my guide dog to the nearby beach where I let her exercise, when I suddenly heard a rock land in the sand nearby and the man shouting threats and insults after me.

I moved away and called 911. There was a State police station about a kilometer down the road. After 20 minutes when they hadn’t come, I called again, and walked down to the station. I asked to file a report, and for the form to file a hate crime report. The officer said they didn’t have the hate crime form. I insisted that they were supposed to have those forms, he said I would have to come back some other time. At that point, I just wanted to get home to safety; I filed the police report and left. I never heard back.

Abuse of people with disabilities, euthanasia and hate crimes are all linked to the devaluation of the lives of people with disabilities, be they children, adults or elders. This devaluation is also at the heart of policies that prevent people with disabilities from having control over all aspects of their lives; who cares for them and how, where they live, where they go and how they get there, whether or not they can work, their social lives. They’re all faces of the same beast, oppression.

william Peace said...

Tigerlily, Great comment. Thank you for taking the time to write a thoughtful reply.