Content note: This post includes discussions of the murder and abuse of people with disabilities.
Betty Anne Gagnon was 48 years old when she was found curled up in the front seat of a pickup truck in the parking lot of a petrol station near Edmonton, Canada, in November 2009. Her face was heavily bruised and her body bore clear evidence of abuse.
She was dead. The coroner determined that blunt force trauma to the head was the likely cause of death. That was, in the literal sense, the cause of death, but what actually caused her death was ableism.
Betty had developmental disabilities. For 14 years, she lived independently with a caregiver in Calgary, but later moved in with her sister and brother-in-law. During the almost five year time period before her death, she was confined in a cage made of chicken wire, and forced to sleep in a tent smeared with her own feces. Or locked in a dog run in the yard. Or in a decommissioned school bus. Her ‘caregivers’ openly admitted this at the inquest into her death, where they described leaving her in the unheated bus with no toilet facilities, and they talked about the events in the hours before she was left to die in a parking lot, about how she was cold and struggled to breathe. Oh, but they called emergency services for help after they dumped her.
They are being charged with manslaughter, ‘unlawful’ confinement, and assault. I understand how the law works, and how the statutes are organised, and I understand why they cannot be charged with murder, but this was murder. It was murder after years of dehumanisation and abuse. It was murder. It was the complete and utter, total devaluation of human life.
Last week, a vigil was held to honour her, and to draw attention to the abuse of people with disabilities. As attendees at the vigil pointed out, caregiver abuse is common, it’s not commonly addressed, and sometimes it ends in cases like this.
The thing about cases like this is that they are endless. Every week, it seems, I am reading about another person with disabilities being murdered by ‘caregivers,’ and these cases drop off the radar very quickly, but I remember them. We remember them. We also remember the narrative that surrounds most of these cases, where we are reminded that caring for people with disabilities is such a burden and there must have been circumstances involved that we don’t know about, because how could we, it’s so hard to be a caregiver.
Of course, none of us are caregivers. It’s either/or, right? You are either a person with disabilities, or you are a caregiver.
I always thought, personally, that it’s pretty hard to dehumanise people, but apparently the media has no problem doing that. Very rarely do cases like this stress that there was a person involved, a human being, who is now dead. Dead because of social attitudes about the value of disabled lives, dead because of narratives reinforcing latitude in circumstances, dead because no one reported the abuse or because if someone did, the report wasn’t taken seriously. Dead because, sometimes, the media treats murderous ‘caregivers’ like misunderstood heroes.
It is sickening, and I mean that in a physical sense, to read article after article about people killing people like me, and getting away with it. And it is enraging to see how little coverage these cases get, a throwaway that happened to pop up when I happened to look at the screen, and would have missed otherwise. How many other devalued lives have been snuffed out without any awareness on the media’s part at all?
Betty Anne Gagnon was a human being. She had feelings, memories, experiences, and life. And that was taken from her because of her disabilities, because people determined that she wasn’t a person, and therefore didn’t need even the minimum standard of care you would give to a human being: A bed, a warm room, food, a place to use the toilet. She was locked up in an outdoor dog run in Alberta in the winter.
The media reported on the vigil, but didn’t really provide hard statistical information about the abuse and murder of people with disabilities, beyond making vague references to the fact that we are more likely to experience abuse. Many of those articles were specifically framed to focus on caregivers, not actual people with disabilities. Caregivers to ‘speak for those who can’t,’ reminding us, yet again, that those of us who cannot communicate in a way that satisfies others are deemed ‘silent.’
When we talk about ableism, about social attitudes, this is what we are talking about. We are talking about the fact that Betty’s life was deemed worthless because of her disabilities, and that every mainstream narrative reinforced that, right down to the complete lack of interest in her death on the part of anyone other than a handful of disability rights activists.
I remember the Bettys of this world, because so few people will.