On March 1, communities across the country held vigils to remember the lives of people with disabilities lost to filicide.
In the past five years, more than 550 individuals with disabilities were murdered by parents, family members or other caregivers (over a hundred in the past year). In comparison, since 2013, 308 lives were lost in school shootings. We are finally beginning to have a conversation about the tragedies of these shootings. What will it take for us to give the same attention to the violence perpetrated upon people with disabilities?
The number of deaths recognized by the Day of Mourning is likely much lower than the actual death toll. Disability information on individual victims and causes of death may not make obvious that a person was a victim of murder based on disability.
A massive difference exists in the tone of reporting and responses to most child homicides and the response to filicide of a person with a disability. Perpetrators of violence against children are not treated with sympathy and understanding by the media and the general public; we stand united in our condemnation. Yet in many cases where parents have killed their children with disabilities, the media, the community and even the court system have treated the murder lightly, explaining it away and expressing more sympathy for the murderer than the victim.
This situation has become a pattern. A parent murders a child with a disability and the media response justifies, empathizes and excuses the murder. This normalizes the behavior and sends the message that killing a person with a disability is OK, which prompts copycat murders. The response is once again justification for the parent and dismissal of the victim. The cycle continues.
In response, disability advocacy groups such as Autism Self-Advocacy Network, ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, the National Council on Independent Living, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and the American Association of People with Disabilities have organized an annual Day of Mourning to provide (sometimes the only) commemoration of the victims of filicide and bring attention to the filicide cycle. Their clear, unequivocal message is that disability is not a justification for violence.
We are fortunate that, to my knowledge at least, we do not have any documented history of filicide against people with disabilities in Southwest Colorado. However, the societal attitudes that perpetuate filicide easily leak into our region. The underlying causes of filicide include the devaluation of lives of people with disabilities and a prevailing sense that it is better to be dead than to be disabled. Carrying these values contributes to a society where kids and adults with disabilities can be murdered with little consequence.
We can help stop this cycle of violence by recognizing and celebrating the contributions of people with disabilities. People with disabilities are employees, employers, volunteers, board members, parents and church goers. When they are not actively engaged, it is the failing of people without disabilities and the systems we build. That is hardly a justification for murder.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.