March 1st is what’s known in the disability community as Disability Day of Mourning. If you’ve never heard of it, I’m not surprised. DDoM is when, around the world, we come together to remember those in our community who have died by filicide—the official term for when a parent murders their child. According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), in the past five years, over 650 people with disabilities, from infants to elderly relatives, have been killed by family members or caregivers. After a study from 2011 to 2015, the Ruderman Family Foundation reported that one person with disabilities was killed by a parent or caregiver each week.
It is outrageous and horrifying—so there has got be some justice for the victims, right? Not exactly—because disabled people aren’t actually seen as people by a lot of society.
The media tells the same story when these deaths occur: Caring for the now-deceased disabled person was so much of a burden that the caregiver or family member driven to commit the violent act of murder can’t be blamed. Whether in movies or in real life, media loves to portray disabilities as being much worse than death, which might explain why disabled people weren’t protected under the Federal Hate Crimes Act until 2009—40 years after the original act was signed into law. In 2009, President Obama expanded the 1969 hate crime law by signing the Matthew Shepard and James Beard Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, which added disability to the list of reasons for why an assault may be classified as a hate crime.
Disability-Memorial.org keeps a long list of deaths by filicide, and in the 10 years since the hate crime law was expanded, the numbers are still incredibly high. As of writing, the most recent murder listed on Disability-Memorial.org occurred on February 7th. Still, the hate crime law’s expansion has not been implemented to actually help victims get justice. The way the crime of filicide is discussed, reported, and (by default) excused centers around how we as disabled people are burdensome—which is the nicest way the world can say that our lives don’t matter.
In 2015, founder and director of Disability Visibility Project Alice Wong gave a speech on DDoM in the Bay Area where she spoke about the 2014 case of a mother who murdered her three disabled children.
“[She] suffocated her three children and then tried to kill herself. She said she could ‘see no hope for the future’ of her children and felt that their quality of life was more important than the length of their lives. While Tania Clarence admitted to killing Ben, Max, and Olivia at home, she denied murdering them. The charges of murder were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. In the words of the prosecutor: ‘It is clear on the evidence Mrs. Clarence killed her three children because she wanted to end their suffering and at the time she committed the act she could not see any alternative or any other way out of their joint suffering.'”
Notice the word used by the prosecutor: “suffering.” It feels like a punch in the chest.
Our lives are deemed as things to suffer from—not as gifts that are just as valuable and beautiful as everyone else’s. We’re forced to look at how the violent caregiver felt, not at the deceased victim. This hateful ideology makes its way into the minds of actual disabled people, so then we have to deal with our own internalized ableism in addition to the ableism in society.
So what can be done about this injustice?
Since 2012, Autistic Self Advocacy Network and different disability organizations have come together to mourn, observe, and demand justice for the disability community, and that’s how DDoM was born. In January 2019, ASAN released their Anti-Filicide Toolkit to help change the way we talk about these crimes. The toolkit contains everything from advice for allies, like naming the victim and not the perpetrator when remembering those killed, and advice for journalists and lawyers, like calling these crimes what they are—murders, not mercy killings.
To be an ally in our fight for justice, talk to some actual disabled people. Or better yet, don’t talk—listen. Do some research to learn how to address the conscious and subconscious ways you enforce ableism in your community.
To be honest, I’m not sure that I will see justice in my lifetime. I can only hope for it for the next generation of disabled youth. All of us—disabled and non-disabled people—owe it to them to do the work. They must know that they deserve full lives. They must know that if those caring for them rob them of that, they’ll get justice.