Thank you all for coming here today and bearing witness with us to all of the lives taken from us before their time.
A theme we heard strongly at last year’s vigils, and that we have continued to hear since, is that these murders and atrocities are a reflection of widely-held beliefs in our society regarding people with disabilities, particularly beliefs towards people with significant cognitive disabilities. Our lives are not valued. We are not seen as full persons. And as a result, we disproportionately experience abuse, violence, and victimization. As a result, our murders go unpunished. As a result, our murderers are often the very people we should have been able to trust the most.
And, as we say every year, it is critical to understand these horrific crimes not as isolated tragic incidents, but as part of a broader pattern. We have to see the connection between these murders, and the way our society thinks about, talks about, and (de)values people with disabilities, particularly people with cognitive disabilities or significant personal care needs. So today I want to talk about these ideas, but more importantly, I want us to reflect on the fact that these ideas have consequences.
These ideas have body counts.
ASAN was founded in part to respond to the way autism was described and depicted by other autism organizations and in the media. While clear progress has been made, it is still all too easy to find very prominent groups describing autism as a never-ending hellscape. There are still groups peddling the myth that our parents’ marriages are more likely to end in divorce, no doubt due to the stress of raising such monstrous children. We are characterized as soulless, as absent, as animals, as “catastrophically disabled,” as constant and never-ending sources of violence, suffering, and frustration. Our families are said to be “not really living.” Our parents and siblings are expected to develop PTSD simply from the horror of living with us.
We cannot say these things, and then wonder why autistic children are murdered. These ideas come with body counts.
Other people with disabilities, especially other people with significant cognitive disabilities, do not escape this real and rhetorical violence either. For many in our society, the default idea of a person with a disability is a person who is a burden on others. Look at virtually any article on services for people with disabilities, and you will see that word. Burden. We take up resources others should have. We suck the life force out of others. We take, and we take, and we can never give. Our existence burdens others. Our existence makes the world a worse place. We aren’t really living, and we’re preventing others from living, too.
These ideas have body counts.
And in contrast, our caregivers and family members are often depicted as saints. The sanctification of caregivers makes it difficult to recognize and speak up against abuse and violence, even when it is very clear. Our caregivers would never hurt us–they’re saints. Who else would care for us? Who else could do what they do? Who else could bear us? Even after a literal murder, we see our murderers described over and over again as overwrought and overburdened caregivers who just couldn’t take it, who just weren’t strong enough to keep from killing us. How could we dare to judge? How could we ever understand the enormous sacrifice a murderer might make? These ideas reinforce themselves. The cycle repeats. Another one of us dies.
Because these ideas have body counts.
It’s important to understand that these ideas don’t need to be explicitly articulated to be present. These ideas are often amorphous, implicit, pervasive, embedded into unconscious bias and entrenched in the everyday ways we think and talk about disability as a society. Let me give you an example of what that means. If a person grows up overhearing these things about autism, not really ever having disabled people to interact with in their classes or at their job, every day walking by solemn black and white pictures of kids looking away from cameras with blue puzzle pieces in the corner, and then years later their child is diagnosed as being autistic…well, we’ve made that parent afraid of their child’s disability before they are even born.
And that comes with a body count.
I’m repeating myself. But when the first thing the parent of a child with a disability hears, over and over again, is “I’m sorry”; when we blame disabled children for divorce or compare caregiving to serving in combat; when we assume that a disabled person is a burden on their spouse; when we look the other way from obvious violence because we don’t know that person’s program, or we don’t want to judge…
These ideas have body counts.
And that body count has passed one thousand.
Every person on this list deserved a full, rich, meaningful life in which they were loved and celebrated and safe. Every person on this list was denied that. Every person on this list was murdered. Every person on this list deserved better.
We have to stop this. We have to take this seriously. We have to examine and fundamentally change the way we as a society talk about, think about, and treat people with disabilities, especially those of us with the most significant disabilities. We must learn to come from a place that values and cherishes the lives of people with disabilities, where our inherent worth is seen and uplifted, where our needs are supported and our existence is celebrated. We must adopt within disability organizations, particularly organizations which support families and providers, a zero-tolerance policy for violent ideas, violent words, and violent actions, even when they seem small, even when it has always been this way. We must hold each other accountable. We must treat this with the life and death urgency it requires.
This will be uncomfortable. It may seem, at times, to be nitpicking, to be intolerant, to be adversarial. It will be hard. It will require us to confront the ugliest parts of ourselves, our organizations, and our friends. It will require us to take a stand. It will require hard work, and pain, and anguish.
And it will be worth it.
Because to fail to change, to fail to confront these ideas, is to fail to take any meaningful action against this absolute crisis in our community. One thousand disabled people are dead. We know why they died. We know who killed them. We know how the idea was spread. Often, we were the ones spreading it. And, armed with that knowledge, it’s up to us to stop it.
Learn more about the Disability Day of Mourning here.