A memorial is finally being constructed to the disabled children, women, men, brothers, sisters, friends murdered in the Holocaust. You have all heard of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but did you know among those victims were three hundred thousand people with disabilities? The Nazi Party organized the T-4 Euthanasia program as a precursor to the notorious concentration camps. Though no one speaks for them often, people like me were the first to die. The Nazi philosophy deemed people with disabilities “unfit for life” and sent them to meet a cruel death under the cloak of mercy. I am delighted that something is being done to recognize these victims, but so very sad that it took so long. We might think the attitudes that led to T-4 are gone with the Nazi regime, but we must remain vigilant because the seeds of such ideas remain in our society. They are a threat to human diversity, and a threat to people with and without disabilities, because all people should live free of fear that they will one day be targeted for being who they are. Sadly, our media condones an attitude that violence against disabled people is due to the burdens they incur, and make it seem like the disabled person’s existence offers nothing but enormous cost. These attitudes cause innocent victims of violence to be robbed of the justice they deserve, justice that would be sought for non-disabled people by default.
Just today, a sixteen-year-old boy was arrested for the murder of his half brother Terry Smith, who was autistic. When I see such stories, I tear up for the life cut short and also for the onslaught of commentary I know will follow about how difficult such children are. Next in my mind is Alex Spourdalakis, an autistic man murdered in March by his mother and godmother because they were frustrated with him. The media follow-up on the case has focused on the difficulty of assisting an autistic person, how tired his mother was, but very little has been spoken about the fact that Alex was the victim of a heinous, premeditated act of violence because he required more care than some other people do. Alex’s mother was offered services from the Department of Family Services this past January, and she refused them. Alex was stabbed multiple times by those entrusted to care for him. Finally, I think of Julie Cirella, an eight-year-old girl with cerebral palsy murdered by her mother who fed her a candy to which she had a known food allergy. Her mother’s note from a suicide attempt expressed that killing Julie gave her a better life because she was “free” from “suffering”.
The image of the sweet- faced girl chilled me to the bone, as she had the same disability with which I live my life. Yes, I face challenges. But the idea that a life like mine is only suffering, and allowing that idea to persist causes destructive events like Julie’s death in our community. I am not oblivious or insensitive to the fact that getting supportive services for people with disabilities is exhausting at times, and wrought with red tape, incompetence, and bumbling agencies. But we must come together to fight for better services in a manner that does not blame the people who need those services. We must realize that better supports are an important cause, but we cannot champion the cause by blaming the oppressed for the oppression. The lack of services in our community is a crime, but so are the murders of Alex, Terry, and Julie. Murder is murder, and violence against a person with a disability should be abhorred as it would be in the case of any other person. Yes, parents need support. Yes, they deserve more support than they are receiving. But we cannot live in a world where killing a disabled person becomes a choice. When that becomes a choice, condoned by the lack of action by others, we are a step closer to once again declaring some and not others “unfit for life”. That scares me, and it should scare you. As someone who depends on others for basic daily tasks, I know how it feels to have your life intertwined with another trusted to help you. I regard these relationships as sacred when based on dignity, respect, and compassion. To violate those principles is to threaten everything we should hold dear as a people. When I see people abusing their roles in the very kind of relationship that keeps me afloat, my heart breaks. I am fortunate to have a loving family and a large network of advocates, but knowing that I have these gifts is not enough. Every person, regardless of disability, gender, or orientation deserves the same things.
As the T4 memorial is built, I challenge all of you to strengthen your communities by recognizing the inherent value of every person. By finding a place for every person. And by taking an unqualified stance against those who decide for others what kind of life is “good enough”. Alex, Terry, and Julie, you were worthy of life. So were the three hundred thousand people taken in the Holocaust. I am sorry that your lives were cut short. I am sorry for the ableism that snuffed your candles. I am sorry that those entrusted to help you betrayed you. I am sorry for all the attitudes that made anyone think hurting you was a good choice. I will do everything in my power to make sure that no one else has to suffer the same fate. When my life on earth is over, I pray that I will meet you in Heaven. When that day comes, I will hold you close, and speak of all the people who remember your names.