What is it with our society and the way it treats people with disabilities? The stories that I have heard lately – from the murder (by law enforcement) of Ethan Saylor, a man with down syndrome, to the ‘pink letter” sent to the family of an autistic teenager urging them to have him euthanized – have sent my mind reeling and have made me physically ill. The message being pounded into my soul is that the lives of people with disabilities are somehow not as worthy as the lives of non-disabled folks.
As someone with multiple disabilities, I have spent my life wondering why this is so. Why, in the 21st century, do many, particularly those in authority, feel compelled to see people with disabilities as different or other? Why do a significant number of non-disabled people hold fast to the stereotypical view that we are useless eaters, burdens and drains on society when it is society that places barriers in our way through discrimination in jobs, education, housing, physical access and basic human rights?
The “othering” of people with disabilities is so ingrained in the majority of us that we don’t even realize when we’re doing it and get defensive when it’s pointed out to us. From simple things such as not speaking directly to us, leaving us out of decisions that directly affect our lives and perpetuating the message that those who choose to befriend us deserve a gold star and sainthood, to critical issues such as the euthanization of disabled babies through abortion, feeling sorry for, rather than enraged at the parent who murders their child simply because he or she has a significant disability, removing a child from the home simply because the parent is disabled and the institutional bias in long term care that says that people with disabilities belong in an institutional setting “for our own protection” – whether society owns it or not, it exists, and in the disability community, we live it every day.
When law enforcement has the opportunity to handle a situation with an unarmed person with a disability in a nonaggressive manner and chooses to take measures resulting in the injury or death of that person, then is found to have done nothing wrong, it sends a message that our lives mean nothing. When a mother who mistreats, then tries to starve her daughter with a disability gets nothing more than a slap on the wrist, it sends a message that our lives are cheap. When artists write nasty rap lyrics that demean people with disabilities, it sends a message that it’s okay to dehumanize us.
People in the disability community aren’t demanding special rights when we speak out against attitudinal barriers that we face every day. It is not ok to treat us like garbage and expect that we accept and deal with it. We are human. We have many gifts and talents to share, whether you see them or not. Our lives are worth every bit as much as yours When you see and treat us as lives worthy of life, love, respect and equality, your lives, in turn, will be better.
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