It no longer shocks me when I read comments on social media that excuse the murders of disabled people. In fact, these days I actually expect it to happen. Every single time there is a story published that reports the killing of a disabled victim by a parent or carer (someone responsible for the disabled persons protection) there are responses that sympathise with the murderers and call for understanding of their plight.
This discourse has been around for years. I began writing responses to it about 4 years ago. Friends of mine have been writing about it much longer than I, some of them for decades. One phrase we have been using recently is “victim blaming”.
What we mean when we say that sympathising with the killers of disabled children is victim blaming, is simply that when people say that the killing was understandable because of the stress the child’s disability put on the parents they imply that the child is responsible for their own death because they caused the stress that pushed their parent to murder.
The idea that the victim is responsible for the crime committed against them is not new in our society. We see it when women are raped- “she shouldn’t walk alone at night”, “she was wearing skimpy clothing so she was asking for it”. We see it when refugees end up held illegally in detention centres- “they shouldn’t have tried to jump the queue by getting on the boat”. We see it in discussions around domestic violence- “they should have just left”.
In the case of the murders of disabled people it looks like “it’s no wonder- there is no support for parents”, “don’t judge until you have walked in the parents shoes”, “someone needs to provide more services”, “life for parents of disabled kids is so hard”, “I understand why this happens, we need to have compassion for these parents”, “it was a mercy killing”, “they were a loving parent that just snapped”, “it is a complex issue and we should not be quick to judge”, and it goes on and on with infinite variations of sympathy for murderers. The victims names are forgotten, their lives devalued and their place in our memories limited to “the disabled kid who made life so hard for their parents that they were left with no choice but to kill them”.
When disability rights advocates speak up against these comments, and point out that it is the parent who was in the wrong rather than the child victim, we are consistently met with outrage and defensiveness. Just today, after being quoted in “The Australian” a large mainstream media publication, on the subject of a recent incidence of filicide involving two Autistic children, the following question was levelled at me: “Where were the so called “advocates” when this family needed help.” I generally don’t respond to comments like this on social media threads, but today I couldn’t stay silent. I replied with
“I am one of the “so called advocates” quoted in this article. In the past 12 months I have been raising my own 6 kids (4 disabled), working on submissions to government and the United Nations trying to get laws changed that will protect disabled students from abuse in our schools, I travelled to Geneva to present to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, I have been in meetings with NDIA leadership and NSW Department of Education policy makers trying to ensure the voices of disabled people are heard in conversations that effect their wellbeing, I have been actively supporting families in distress and families who are trying to secure appropriate supports and funding, and more. I know that the other two people quoted in this article, Briannon and Samantha have been involved in similar work. And all 3 of us are disabled.
“What more is it you want us to do?
“And what are you doing to help?”
But my reply doesn’t really begin to touch the surface of the many issues that are problematic with the way people respond to the harm perpetrated against disabled people.
You see, it’s not true that it is as simple as enough people advocating for the basic human rights of disabled people. That strategy has been tried for years. Making more supports available, public campaigns raising awareness of specific disabilities, attempts at inclusion that are really just micro segregation occurring in mainstream settings , and the formation of disability specific charities….. these things have not stopped the abuse and killings. Parents who have been receiving large amounts of support have killed their children. Parents in communities that are very aware of disability have killed their children. Parents whose children are well accepted in their communities have killed their children. These things are not the answer, because it is not a s simple as the lack of these things being the problem.
The problem is that there is a mindset in our society that stereotypes, stigmatises, and devalues the lives of disabled people, and no one is willing to take responsibility for their part in it. No amount of awareness, services or implementation of buzz word based policy initiatives will change it. Until as a society we begin to value diversity and become willing to stand up for the marginalised because it is the right and ethical thing to do and not only when law or policy force us to, the killings will continue. Until we are prepared as a group to shame murderers of disabled children, rather then defending them, parents will continue to see killing as an acceptable way to proceed when they feel overwhelmed.
We are all responsible.
It’s not a small job that needs to be done. A shift in values that underpin a culture is not an easy task. And it is no one persons responsibility. “But I am not an advocate!”, you might exclaim, “I can’t do that kind of work.” Fair enough. Advocacy work isn’t for everyone. But everyone can do something to help change the way disabled people are viewed. It is not acceptable to decide you can’t do anything but sit back and sympathise with parents who were stressed just because you can’t do the big tasks of advocacy.
We are all responsible.
“But I haven’t done anything to harm disabled people!”, you tell me.
My response is, are you sure?
Let me ask you some questions.
When you hear a story about the abuse of disabled people do you wonder what the disabled person must have done to cause the abuser to act the way they did?
When someone discloses to you that they have a disabled family member do you respond with “I’m so sorry, your life must be so difficult”?
In conversations about disability, do you accept as truth whatever opinion you read from a parent, friend or “expert” who is commenting?
When you see those fundraising campaigns designed to scare or guilt you into giving money to a charity that says they “help”, do you give money without checking to see how the organisation actually helps disabled people?
When you hear a joke that goes along the lines of “you look autistic when you do that”, “I’m so bipolar I can’t even decide what to do”, or “I’m a bit OCD about that”, do you laugh along?
If you have done any of those things you have caused harm to disabled people.
Unless you get angry on behalf of the disabled peopled and speak up about the need for everyones rights to be respected,
Unless you cease feeling sympathy for those who care for disabled people and instead see diversity as essential and disabled people as having value,
Unless you seek out the words of disabled people and strive to centre them in all conversations about disability,
Unless you are prepared to think critically about the best way to help instead of making simple gestures to soothe your conscience,
Unless you are willing to point out in everyday situations the small pervasive ways ableism endangers lives ….
You are part of the problem that perpetuates the killing of disabled children by their parents.
All of us have a part to play in protecting the lives of disabled children. There are big jobs to do and small jobs to do. None of the jobs are more important than the other- they all need to be done. Please, will you join us?