The flyers were posted around campus, the words of Mother Jones emblazoned across a simple image of a flame: Mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living. UNC-Asheville’s March 1 vigil, part of the Disability Day of Mourning, carried grief and a fierce anger. Above all, it marked those who gathered as a community: a community of disabled people mourning the losses of those whose lives bore a deep connection to their own.
For nearly three hours, the names of the dead were read beneath the small white tent on the quad. Tiny candles flickered on the table that held a select few of their stories. Clouds darkened over overhead, as, one by one, the names continued, quiet and relentless as water. Names like: Alex Santiago, 21 years old; Desmond Hudson Jr., 6 months old; Carolyn Taurino, 57 years old; Jose “Pepe” Castillo-Cisneros, 3 years old. And hundreds more, of all ages, all backgrounds, all genders.
UNC-Asheville’s Disability Cultural Center, together with community members, parents, and people with disabilities, marked the Disability Day of Mourning on March 1, 2017 with a vigil that echoed similar gatherings across the world. People gathered with silence, with tears, with readings held in about 40 cities and communities throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and online. This was UNC-Asheville’s first time participating in the vigil, and the response was strong. It came about through the vision of Christa Mullis, who was also instrumental in founding the campus’s Disability Cultural Center. “It was the first thing I emailed Dr. Chiang about when I got the (internship) at the Center,” Christa admitted. Chiang instantly saw the power of the vigil and the two set about to make it happen, with the help of an organizational packet from Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN).
According to the ASAN, over 400 people with disabilities have been murdered by their parents, family or caregivers in the past five years. The rates of violence against people with disabilities are higher than those against non-disabled people. A lot higher.
In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the age-adjusted rate of violent victimization for people with disabilities was nearly three times the rate among those without disabilities. In 2012, reviews done by the World Health Organization found that children with disabilities are 3.7 times more likely than non-disabled children to be victims of any sort of violence, 3.6 times more likely to be victims of physical violence, and 2.9 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence. Children with mental or intellectual impairments appear to be among the most vulnerable, with 4.6 times the risk of sexual violence than their non-disabled peers.
“I think one thing that people don’t realize is that people’s attitudes towards people with disabilities isn’t always fine and wonderful and loving and charity.” Mullis said. “The murder of (6-year old) London McCabe was right after I was diagnosed, and I really got involved in the community so…that one really affected me emotionally. I always think about him whenever I hear about another autistic kid being killed, or when this day comes up. I did not expect that I would have to read London McCabe’s name the other day so, yeah, when I did read it, I had to take a moment. A few times when I was reading there was a pause because I had to reset my voice, but that time there was a pause because I had to reset myself, emotionally, before reading his name. He reminds me of some autistic kids I know who aren’t being treated so well, who are really happy loving kids, and their parents aren’t treating them well. And I worry about them. Not that something so horrible will happen to them as happened to him, but other things that are still… horrible.”
The first Disability Day of Mourning vigil was held on March 30, 2012. George Hodgins, a 22-year old Autistic man, had been murdered by his mother earlier that month. Because Hodgins was disabled, media accounts of his death focused on the challenges his mother faced as the parent of an autistic child rather than upon Hodgins himself. As organizer Zoe Gross noted, “Because he was disabled, George had been written out of the story of his own murder.”
Today, the annual Disability Day of Mourning is hosted by a coalition of organizations, including ASAN, ADAPT, AAPD, Not Dead Yet, the National Council on Independent Living, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, and other disability rights organizations. Mullis opened the UNC-Asheville’s vigil with a reading of Zoe Gross’s essay, “Killing Words” which asks professionals, journalists, and media to examine the way they cover violence against disabled people in their news articles. “We need to start looking at these murders as copycat crimes, which are encouraged when murders of disabled people receive positive press coverage,” Gross writes.
One question I asked each student was whether they’d been personally aware of the pervasiveness of violence against people with disabilities. In general, I found that most students with disabilities were not surprised by the statistics. Kit Sullivan (whose reading of “I am not a burden,” brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance) said, “I’ve seen a lot—not people getting physically injured, but just saying bad things, or just making jokes. It can be demeaning and people might not realize it.”
More than one of those gathered referred to Akton T-4, the Nazi party’s purge of the disabled community in Germany which resulted in medical experimentation, torture and deaths of its disabled citizens. “I was lucky,” said UNCA student Nefertiti Karismaida, who read Astra Milburg’s powerful “Letter to a Baby Thrown from a Bridge” at the vigil. “My parents never think that I am a burden, but there are millions of kids whose parents think the kid’s life must be a misery. ‘If I put my kid out of misery, I am doing it out of good intention.’ That is not kindness.”
“I feel sad, but I’m also angry,” said Ray Hemachandra, the parent of a 16-year old autistic son, who also pointed out the banner flying from the nearby Ramsey Library advertising an exhibit marking the persecution of homosexuality in Nazi Germany, 1933-45. “How do we change the culture?”
Karismaida would say, changing the culture requires action. “It’s like, this is who we are and we need to unite, we need to stand together because we are people, we are not property. We should not be taken lightly. If we remain afraid, if we do not conquer our fear, then we will always be afraid. Being brave does not mean you are reckless. Being brave means that you protect those who matter. And you matter. Because you matter, we are proud that you are here.”
The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network created an Anti-Filicide Toolkit to actively work against the prevelence of violence against disabled people.