Remarks from Zoe Gross at Disability Day of Mourning 2019

A study came out back in December that got some press this week. The headlines were something like “Autistic children are more likely to be abused.” This isn’t new information – if you work in the field of disability, you should know that disabled people are disproportionately likely to be targets of violence. But this study said something a little bit different. The study looked at referrals to a child abuse hotline, and found that autistic kids were two and a half times more likely to have been reported to this hotline because someone suspected they were being abused. These are only the cases that were reported. The abuse of disabled children so often goes unreported. It is hidden, ignored, explained away.

I found something else in this study. It wasn’t the headline. It didn’t make the press release. Autistic children were more likely to be referred to the hotline. But the abuse of autistic children was much less likely to be investigated.

Ninety percent of reports of non-autistic children being abused, were investigated. For autistic children? Sixty percent. Six times out of ten, somebody followed up. Four times out of ten, no one checked to make sure the child was safe. Out of every five reports of an autistic child being abused, they threw out two. It’s been shown in study after study that kids with disabilities are more likely to be abused at home. But the people who are tasked with responding to and preventing abuse threw out two reports out of every five.

What was the take-away from this study? Every article I read included the senior investigator’s thoughts on what makes autistic children vulnerable to abuse. At the top of the list, every time: “the presence of challenging behaviors.”

I want to make it really clear – child abuse is not the behavior the researcher is talking about here. He’s not talking about the behavior of the perpetrator. The behavior that presents a challenge, the behavior that heightens the risk of abuse, he says, is the child’s behavior. The researcher was asked what makes autistic children vulnerable to abuse, and his first thought was: it’s the way they act. The way they act makes people hurt them.

Two out of five reports got thrown away. We don’t know what happened to those kids. No one checked.

Studying violence against people with disabilities makes it painfully clear how ever-present ableism is in our lives. Ableism keeps safety and justice out of our reach. Ableism makes abusers think they have permission to hurt us. When we are hurt, ableism makes it less likely that anyone will intervene. If we look for help, ableism makes it less likely that we will be believed. Ableism allows abuse to escalate. Sometimes, that kills us.

Many of the people we mourn today were killed after months or years of abuse. Sometimes that abuse was reported, but the investigators believed the abuser’s story. Sometimes there was a report, and the report was thrown out. And sometimes there was no report at all — but there were witnesses, who knew and did nothing. Why? Because ableism tells them that disabled people deserve the violence perpetrated against us.

I feel the weight of that idea — not just now, but so many times throughout the year. I am reminded, and their names come to my lips, and their names weigh on me. When I speak to someone about the prevalence of violence against disabled people and I am met with disbelief. Je’Hyrah Daniels. When our dead are used as rhetorical props and their murder is portrayed as the natural consequence of insufficient support. George Hodgins. When people write op eds describing the existence of autistic children as a form of abuse that they inflict on those they love. Casey Albury. Ruby Knox. When prosecutors are so horrified by the idea of living with a disabled relative that they stop doing their job and instead fill courtrooms with sympathy and praise for murderers. Ben Clarence. Max Clarence. Olivia Clarence. When judges tell perpetrators that the years they spent caring for their child constituted a sort of pre-punishment for their decision to take that child’s life. Glen Freaney. As if by parenting someone they earned the right to murder them. Courtney Liltz. When I see another article and know we have to add another name to the list.

When I talk about our dead I feel the weight of the ableism that ended their lives and that in so many cases defines how they are remembered. I feel the weight of twelve hundred names — some that come to me at odd moments, some that I used to know and forgot, some that are strangers’ names because the list has grown so long. I feel the weight of my grief and the grief of my community. Do you feel that? Has something heavy built up in you the way it has in me?

In the Jewish tradition, we leave pebbles, rocks on graves instead of flowers. Theories vary as to why. One thought is that the rocks last longer — they show that someone is remembered. They mark a community’s respect for someone who has died. In ancient times piles of stones were used as grave markers, with everyone who passed a grave leaving another stone there to build the marker higher.

I worry about what kind of marker we can leave for the people our community has lost. Each of these names that we carry from year to year represents a world of possibility, ended by violence. What can we give them after so profound a loss? If we set aside one day to remember each of these people, it would take more than three years to accomplish this. If we took one minute of silence for each of them, we wouldn’t speak until tomorrow afternoon. And I couldn’t carry enough rocks to lay on all their graves.

But I think about the image of that pile of stones rising as everyone adds their little pebble. Each time we say someone’s name, each time we return to honor their memory, we build something higher. We are a community and these were our people. They will not be forgotten. Their names will not be rhetoric. They were people, and their lives were worth living, and we miss them.

It matters that we say that. It matters that we say it together. Our words pile up on each other and build monuments for our dead.

There’s something else about leaving rocks on graves, about processing grief, about putting down a weight. When you remember someone you have lost, you can pick up a pebble, carry it with you until you can visit their grave, and lay it down.

There is a weight on us that accumulates over the year, that comes from the ableism we experience and witness, from knowing that hate and dehumanization live so close to us. It builds up in us. Our grief for those we have lost builds up in us. We feel like we are carrying a weight of stones to put on graves, more than we can lift. We feel like we are pushing a boulder uphill.

I hope you can put something down today. I hope that being here can help you in some of the ways it helps me. If you’ve grieved for these people and felt alone in your grief, look around you. If you’ve read defense after defense of people who murdered disabled relatives, and felt alone in your anger – look around you. Here and around the world, hundreds of people are gathered today to commemorate our dead, to mourn them, and to affirm the importance of their lives.

We need to leave evidence that they lived, that they mattered. We need to say that we remember them. But we are carrying something that has a weight to it. We struggle both with the weight of grief and the duty to remember. We struggle with the burden of ableism and the work of ending it. We feel the hurt and loss and despair that comes from living in a society that dehumanizes us, and we are overwhelmed by the task of turning this into a world that all of us can survive. So here we are. We come to mourn for the dead. We come to fight for the living. We come to lay down burdens and build up monuments. The world is not what it should be, and we have lost so many, and the work is not done. But we are here, with our grief in our hands, and we are not alone.