Thoughts on Record of the Dead
Trigger warning for discussion of murder of people with disabilities.
When we first discussed keeping a record of the names of people with disabilities whose murders or mysterious deaths had made the news, we thought it would be something we’d post four times a year. We started gathering the names with the expectation the first posting would be in December.
And these lists are incomplete. Many come from news stories that we just come across in our daily reading. I have set up a Google News Alert for anything that comes up with some variation on “disability +dead”, with various diagnoses added in every month. The most recent month has 32 names, but the two previous ones had 27.
The causes of death are disturbingly similar in their repetition.
September included one house fire, 10 people murdered by family members (of which four had been starved to death), 1 person murdered by unrelated caregivers, and three men of colour shot to death by police officers.
October included four house fires, four people murdered by family, three people murdered by unrellated caregivers, and two people killed by police, one of whom was killed through use of a stun-gun. Both were men, one with a mental health diagnosis, the other with a cognitive disability.
November included one house fire, eight people murdered by family members, one of whom was starved to death, two murdered by care givers, and four shot to death by police. Three of these cases involved men with mental health conditions, although the fourth, a man who was a full-time wheelchair user, was ruled a suicide.
I’ve read every one of the news reports I’ve linked to, and many more besides. There are things that stand out: house fires, when they’re not deliberately lit, kill people with mobility-related disabilities who can’t get out. Police officers have shot men whose families have called them because their family member is having a breakdown and they don’t know who else to call: they are aware they’re being called to the home of someone with a mental health condition. When defending a family member for smothering a disabled relative to death, the defense attorney will inevitably point out that this was a crime that the defendant is unlikely to repeat, being a crime against a disabled dependent.
I also learned that there will be weeks of outrage in national papers about disabled parking passes being abused. There will not be weeks of outrage in national papers about care centers restraining autistic youths until one of them dies.
Very few cases came up more than once. Exceptions were one of the police shootings (John Williams) and the disappearance of Zahra Clare Baker, a 10 year old white girl who was deaf and had cancer. Many missing cases of people with disabilities would only make the news after their bodies had been discovered, having been missing for three days.
What I have learned, after doing this for only three months? I don’t have the ability to do it anymore. I don’t have the ability to list the names of our dead every month, to keep track of how many of us are murdered by family while others shake their head and turn away. I don’t have the ability to really look at what all this means, if it means anything. I want to know why police officers shoot people they know have mental health conditions for behaving like people who have mental health conditions. I want to know why our lives are rated so cheaply that starving us to death might not even result in charges being laid. I want to know why our murders are so common, and yet so rarely talked about.
Or maybe I don’t.
Ableism, as I’ve said before, kills. It kills because family members in desperate situations have no place to turn to while political pundits bravely say the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has gone to far. It kills because family members have no idea who to call when someone they love is having difficulties coping with a mental health condition, so they call the police who come with guns. It kills because care centers that pit children in fights against each other for snacks at break time, for the amusement of the staff, are allowed to stay open until someone actually dies. It kills because there are so many news reports after certain types of murders that position the parent of a disabled child as having done the brave thing, the right thing, the thing all right-thinking people would do. It kills because the rhetoric of how having a child with a disability is so terrible that even the thought that maybe a child might have a disability is reason enough for some parents to kill their children, rather than seek assistance that might not even be there.
We are always, always, in a fight for our lives, and the lives of each other.