[Content warning: violence, murder, death, dehumanization]
Our people are dying. Our people are murdered by those who are supposed to care for them. Our people are killed by the police at an alarming rate. Our people are being hurt by government policies that leave them to struggle and even die.
Our people are hurting. We are bullied. We are isolated. We are caught in despair and hopelessness in the face of how we are treated.
Why? Why are we, disabled people, at so much risk of violence and suffering?
Some, of course, will argue that this is just our natural state of being, a normal side effect of disability. They will blame all of the problems we face upon the ways our bodies and minds differ from theirs.
I disagree. There are things my body cannot do because of disability. There are things my brain can’t do the same as a neurotypical brain. Yet, so many of the issues I face are not the direct result of disability but due to the way society treats disability.
Disabled people, particularly those with alternative communication styles or intellectual disabilities, are often viewed as less than human. While few people would be comfortable coming right out and saying this, the dehumanization of disabled people is a constant thread throughout the tapestry of our society. It’s even evident in the ways people speak about us. People insist on using person-first language (Sabrina has autism or Sabrina has a disability) rather than identity first language (Sabrina is autistic or Sabrina is disabled). The reasoning often given is that people must be reminded that we are people first. I’m sorry, but if you need to jump through linguistic hoops to remind yourself that I am a person, the implication is that you otherwise do not view me as a person.
When our people are murdered by parents or caregivers, the murderers often get off with little to no punishment. Our murders are viewed as justifiable. We must just be such burdens on those caring for us that it’s understandable that they snapped and killed us. If that doesn’t leave you filled with horror, then you may not view disabled people as fully human. Our murderers get away with it because their victims aren’t viewed as full people with the same rights as anyone else to live. We, the disabled, shouldn’t have to fight for our rights to live. It is our dehumanization that has left us in a place where we must argue for the rights of our community members to live. It is dehumanization that has put us in the place of fighting a system that doesn’t punish those who murder us.
Over the past few years, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained traction in the US. These wonderful people have brought into the spotlight the atrocities committed against black people by the police. However, in the midst of these very important conversations, a major intersection is often overlooked. Of all the people killed by police, over half are disabled. [http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/half-people-killed-police-suffer-mental-disability-report-n538371] Our people are being killed by the police at an alarming rate and yet few are even aware that this is a problem. As with parents and caregivers who murder us, police who do the same also get off with little to no punishment most of the time. We are being gunned down, often in our own homes, and yet most people have no idea. When people do hear about someone with a mental illness or intellectual/developmental disability (I/DD) getting killed by police, they often assume that the person must have been violent and thus the police were justified.
After years of the actions of white mass shooters being blamed on mental illness or I/DD in the media, many myths have arose surrounding these disabilities. Many believe that those with mental illness or I/DD are inherently more violent than “normal” people. We are seen as dangerous. We are seen as not quite human. We are others. All of this allows for our murderers to walk free. These ideas that subtly work their way into the popular consciousness erase our humanity and allow horrors to be committed against us.
The dehumanization of disabled people can also be more subtle. It can be talking to the person with someone in a wheelchair instead of talking directly to the chair user. It can be assuming that because someone does not speak with their mouth parts that they do not communicate. It is ideas like our empathy is what makes us human or our ability for language is what makes us human, both of which imply that those without empathy or without standard language are someone not human. It is talking about a disabled child (or adult) in derogatory ways with that person standing right next to you. It is preventing disabled people from making choices about their own lives.
I believe that the dehumanization of disabled people stems, at least in part, from fear. There is, of course, the fear of what is different from oneself as well as the fear of the other. Yet, I think the biggest fear that contributes to our dehumanization is the fear of mortality. Disabled people are walking (or rolling or however you get around) reminders that our bodies can and will break down and that one day we will all die. People with mental illness or I/DD are reminders that our minds are fragile things that can break down and that one day we may be left as shells of our former selves due to diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia. We are feared because we remind people that they are not invincible. They see our “broken” bodies and minds and they are reminded that one day they too will have their bodies fail them, that they too may have their minds become foreign.
By thinking of us as others, by considering us not quite human, people can separate themselves from us. They can pull away from the fear of their own mortality by removing our humanity.
That is why we, the disabled, continue to reaffirm our humanity. We are the chair users and cane users, the blind and the deaf, the people with degenerative diseases, the chronically ill, the mentally ill, the autistics, the intellectually disabled, and any other form of disability that exists. We are the disabled and we are fully human. Even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s frightening, even when bad things happen, we are fully and beautifully human and we all have a right to live.