“Katherine Lavoie spent the last moments of her life with her husband pointing a gun at her. Olivia Clarence was four years old, and the last thing that will ever happen to her was her mother cutting off her air. Olivia’s brothers, Ben and Max, ended their lives the same way. They were three years old.”
Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, reads these words from a sheet of paper that she holds in steady hands. Her voice is quiet, but it carries through the meeting room of the National Transitions Youth Center, a small office building near Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C. Bascom seems tall in her black dress, almost ministerial, as she leads a small congregation of mourners in a ritual of shared grief. It’s March 1st, 2017, the Disability Day of Mourning, and we’re about to recite the names of the dead.
Around the country on March 1st, small groups of disabled people — along with friends and families and professionals focused on social justice — gather in real and virtual spaces to name the dead and to mourn. When weather and accessibility permits, we meet outside and light candles. I had spent months reading reports about the murder of disabled people, and decided to finish the project by flying to Washington and processing my own sorrow with some of the organizers of this somber ritual. I sat with my community, listening, our voices hushed.
Small, marginalized communities are used to grief. They’re also used to being blamed for the violence perpetrated against them. A disabled person is killed by a caregiver — usually a family member — at least every week. While individual stories sometimes splash sensationally across page and screen, there’s a sense among activists that the broader context remains unknown or ignored. Worse, too, often those sensationalized stories perpetuate the idea that it’s better to be dead than disabled, rewarding the killers with sympathetic profiles and understanding.
Over the past few months, I organized a small team, funded by the Ruderman Foundation, to assemble, refine, and then analyze a database of the killing of disabled people by their parents and other caregivers from 2011 to 2015. We started with the findings of the Disability Day of Mourning official website, founded by Zoe Gross (who was a collaborator on our project), then built a spreadsheet based on the cases for which the data was absolutely irrefutable. We found that there were at least 219 of these murders over a five-year period, or a little fewer than one a week. This number, though, was only half the story. We wanted to see how media outlets talked about the violence, to provide some data to back up the broad sense within the community that coverage contributed to dehumanization, stigma, and violence.
Local crime reporting is a very specific kind of beat. You go to the scene, get a statement from the cops, write some descriptive passages about what you see, talk to some neighbors, and maybe call an expert or two if there is something unusual about the case. Later, you track cases through the courts, relaying reactions from families, lawyers, and judges. It’s a narrative form, dependent on the ability to maintain distance while evoking emotions in readers. It’s no surprise that our mainstream — and in this case ableist — presumptions about life, death, and the value of a given human life permeates such reporting.
Going through the archives, I read 101 different articles about 66 murders in 2015. In that year, not a single reporter reached out to a disabled person for comment about the murder of disabled people. Dozens, on the other hand, blithely perpetuated ableist narratives equating disability with suffering and murder with acts of mercy. Here are just a few examples.
When Bonnie Liltz killed her daughter, the Chicago Tribune quoted a family friend saying, “Bonnie deserves an award for the years of sacrifice she gave for her daughter.” When Harry Burroughs killed his daughter and then himself, the Daily Heraldin suburban Chicago ran a piece in which Burroughs’ former partners on the planning commission extolled hm as a “wonderful guy,” and said they would miss him. His daughter’s life received no coverage. The local NBC affiliate in Dawsonville, Georgia, wondered whether the murder of a disabled teenager by his mother was a “possible mercy killing,” using a phrase particularly reviled by the disability community. The affiliate later changed their headline after widespread protest. The New York Timesand many other outlets used William Hager’s murder of his wife, Carolyn, to report on the high cost of prescription drugs for seniors, implicitly giving credence to Hager’s claim that he killed Carolyn over medical costs. Missing was the fact that Carolyn did not ask to die. Emily Kaminski’s murder by her grandmother was called “an act of love” by a friend and sometime caretaker, as reported by local news without further context.
Back in D.C., Gross talks about seeing Robert Latimer on television, defending the gassing of his daughter as compassionate. She talks about how even professional disability advocates use these cases to advocate for services, even though, in many cases, the murderers had ample access. Gross, an autistic woman who now works for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, is passionately dedicated to providing more services for people with disabilities and their families. In that room, we all are, or we wouldn’t be there. But none of us wants to see our desire for better services used to justify murder. Not only does it erase the victims’ lives, rendering them mere bullet points in liberal arguments for a stronger safety net; equally important, as Gross says, “We need to start looking at these murders as copycat crimes, which are encouraged when murders of disabled people receive positive press coverage.” She continues: “When journalists call murderers ‘loving and devoted parents,’ when parents normalize murder by saying that all special-needs parents have murderous thoughts, the result is an environment in which these murders are seen as acceptable. We can’t pretend that other parents of disabled kids aren’t hearing that message.”
After a few other people speak, volunteers take pages packed with names and ages of murder victims. This year, there are over 750 names, and it’s going to take a while to read them. Bascom mentions that we’re unlikely to be able to do this part of the ritual for much longer, as our emotional and physical stamina is already being taxed. I read: “Maxwell J. Peterson, age 26. Luc Baeyens, age 48. Anne Schmidt, age 73. Unnamed baby boy, age 3 days.” I falter at this last one, and even as I read almost 50 more names, my voice is thick with tears.
In the end, Bascom reads a poem by Laura Hershey, called “You Get Proud by Practicing.” There’s an affirmation in these verses, even as they acknowledge that so much of the world regards disabled lives as disposable. The lines even offer a map to combat internalized ableism. Bascom’s voice, again at once quiet and commanding, finishes:
Remember, you weren’t the one
Who made you ashamed,
But you are the one
Who can make you proud.
Practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
Keep practicing so you won’t forget.
You get proud
Back in the D.C. night, a small group of us head into the chilly evening. The night rain has held off, so it’s an easy walk to a nearby restaurant to eat and drink, in what feels like a wake for the dead. We’ll be back next year. The list will be longer. Will the stories of these new victims be told? Will anyone else remember their names? Or will their murders be characterized as acts of mercy?