Today, March 1st, the disability organizations Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, Not Dead Yet, and the National Council on Independent Living are observing a Disability Day of Mourning. They will be holding vigils in remembrance of people with disabilities murdered by parents or caregivers, and reminding the world that this needs to stop. A list of vigils is available here.
I will unfortunately not be able to attend a vigil this year due to my Shabbat observance commitments. As this is an important issue for Jews, I am talking about it here instead.
Last year, Elizabeth Hodgins shot her 22 year old son, George Hodgins, to death. News articles described him as a delightful person. They also described his communication impairment, and some difficult things other autistic people do, as though these are mitigating factors. The overwhelming message in these articles is that caring for people with disabilities is unbelievably horrible, and that it’s only to be expected that those forced to do it will sometimes decide to commit murder instead.
This is connected with another deadly misconception about disability: the notion that life with severe impairments is not worth living unless they can be cured. This shows up in force in a disturbing young adult novel, _Stuck in Neutral_. It’s from the perspective of a severely disabled young man. He is unable to make voluntary movements, and everyone around him believes that he has no mind and that he is suffering. Over the course of the story, he becomes aware that his father is planning to murder him – and he sympathizes, and considers that perhaps he ought to trust his father to decide whether he ought to remain alive. The book ends abruptly in a way that strongly suggests that his father did, in fact murder him.
Notably, there was no suggestion that lack of access to services was the issue. The parent who was considering killing the protagonist wasn’t his primary caregiver.
This book won multiple awards, has strongly positive ratings on major book websites, and is often assigned to children in schools. Stories like these teach children that sometimes it is ok to murder people with disabilities. News articles written about actual murder victims teach the same deadly message to adults.
As Jews, we should be railing against this. As Jews, we know that we are all made b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image. There is no exception to this: the Bible doesn’t say “except people with severe disabilities”. There is no sin worse than murder, and no justification for murdering an innocent person. No one is better off dead. That is our core religious value.
This is a religious value no one would disagree with, and yet, it is one of the hardest to hold onto. Caring about murder victims even when they are socially marginal is easier said than done. Our culture says that people with severe disabilities aren’t really full people, and that murdering them is understandable. As Jews, we should be leading the fight against this attitude.
Most disabilities are not curable. This does not stop people with disabilities from living full and meaningful lives, but despair can. Caregivers of people with disabilities quickly realize that a cure isn’t likely, and that the person they are caring for is going to stay disabled. If they believe that the person they are caring for can’t have a meaningful life without being cured, they are likely to see their caregiving as pointless and degrading labor. Over the long term, this wears people down unbearably. This is deadly, in a way that disability itself is not.
Many, many people with disabilities lead happy and full lives. Disabled folks are, first and foremost, people. Being a person and having a good life does not depend on a cure. It doesn’t depend on overcoming disability, either. Rather, it’s about finding worthwhile things to do that are within one’s capacities. Everyone has things they can do, and it’s possible to find them and get on with life. The only people who can’t do this those who don’t get a chance because someone killed them.
And I want to turn to a moment to people with disabilities who are reading this for a moment and say something directly: I’m sorry that people want to kill you, and I’m sorry that they have so many sympathizers. I’m sorry that Jewish space isn’t safe. It should be. God willing, it will be. I am working to make it safe, and if there is anything you can tell me about what is needed, I will be grateful to hear it.
Ruti Regan is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a soferet STa”M. Her vision is to integrate human dignity with a halakhic lifestyle. Follow her @furtivepatach.