The Disability Day of Mourning: What this Day Means to Me.

Every year on March 1, locations around the country hold candlelight vigils to mark The Disability Day of Mourning.  The Disability Day of Mourning is a memorial to the people with disabilities who were victims of filicide. “Filicide,” refers to pattern of violence that starts when a parent or caregiver murders their disabled child/relative, or person with a disability under their care.

Background

I became involved with the disability rights movement in Winter 2016, through Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN).   During our New Jersey Chapter monthly meet-ups, we discussed the various issues facing the disabled community.  This has sparked my efforts with Chapter Leader, Aaron Zisook, to grow our New Jersey ASAN Chapter, start a website to communicate our concerns, reach new members, and to start creating change.

However, my interest in assisting the disabled community far proceeds last winter. For seven years (prior to my beginning my doctoral program at Rutgers University), I worked at several different agencies serving people with various mental, physical, and developmental disabilities.  Specifically, as a teacher assistant at a private residential school for autistic children, as an intensive case manager at catholic non-profit agency for family with disabilities, and as a Medicaid Service Coordinator for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities.  Although the vast majority of the time students/clients were treated well by staff,  I unfortunately became aware of several incidents of maltreatment.

During my work, particularly as a teacher assistant , it was not uncommon to take students out in public on a field trip.  It was here, when I witness first-hand the discrimination and poor treatment from society members…the stares, the negative comments, or simply the looks of disgust as we walked by.  It broke my heart.

People with disabilities are too often treated poorly, and at times, less than human. Except they are not less than anything… they are human and deserve the same amount of respect and dignity as any other human.

On a personal level, I also have a younger brother on the autism spectrum.  He was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was 13, and other mental health problems shortly thereafter.  I was 12 (“baby-sitting age”) when he was born, so I spend a lot of time with him during my teen years, and we developed a very special bond.   He was my “little buddy” and now as an adult, he is one of my best friends (and still my buddy).  Again, through out his teens and adulthood, I witnessed others treat him poorly.  I also remember him coming home from school when he was 13-years-old, with his little body covered in bruises from being restrained by school staff.  Although my parents pressed criminal changes against the men who inflicted these injuries- attorneys refused to take the case and nothing came of it. They were never held accountable.

March 1, 2017

This day has a different meaning to everyone, and/or touches people differently.  Here is what it means to me.

As I sat at The Disability Day of Mourning Vigil on March 1st, I became overwhelmed with emotions.   Tears steaming down my face as I listened to the names of those who were murdered by their caregivers…. these precious lives were taken by the people they were dependent upon and trusted. What a betrayal of trust.

The Disability Day of Mourning website: http://disability-memorial.org/ tracks cases of filicide dating back to 1980. Although a long list- it is only the “tip of the iceberg,” as many such cases go unreported (causes of death attributed to an “accident”).

In addition, ASAN noted:

“The media portrays these murders as justifiable and inevitable due to the “burden” of having a disabled person in the family. If the parent stands trial, they are given sympathy and comparatively lighter sentences, if they are sentenced at all. The victims are disregarded, blamed for their own murder at the hands of the person they should have been able to trust the most, and ultimately forgotten. And then the cycle repeats.” (see: http://autisticadvocacy.org/projects/community/disability-community-day-of-mourning/anti-filicide/)

This Disability Rights Movement is a Human Rights Movement, and a Social Justice Movement. Clearly, people with disabilities are looked upon as “less than…” including by those in the Criminal Justice System.

We must also acknowledge the deaths of disabled persons due to neglect, and lack of quality medical care. For example, one of my co-worker’s clients was left alone to drown in the bathtub at his community residential home. (See https://www.nytimes.com/video/multimedia/100000001154486/the-death-of-james-taylor.html)

What it means to me: the need for more education and an attitude change

As a disability rights advocate, as a sister, as a friend, as a assistant professor of criminal justice, and as a fellow human being; what The Disability Day of Mourning means to me is we must have a major shift in our attitudes and beliefs about the disabled community.   We must also educate ourselves and others about our disabled friends and neighbors.  This includes educating students about people with disabilities, particularity those enrolled in the medical and social science fields, as they will likely have direct contact with the disabled community through their work.  We must reject the negative stereotypes,  acknowledge these lives as valuable, provide them opportunity to become part of and contribute to society- so that others can see their value.  Please assist in our fight for equality- Disabled lives matter, too.

Melanie C. Mogavero, PhD
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice
ASAN New Jersey Chapter Member, Website Coordinator, Treasurer