By Emma Van der Klift
On March 1st of every year for the last three, a small group of activists – mostly activists with disabilities – have gathered together at Woodland’s Memorial Gardens in New Westminster, BC. The Gardens are situated on the former Woodlands institution grounds, and mark the burial place for disabled people who lived and died in that institution from the late 1800s until 1996, when it finally closed.
There is a monument in the Garden that serves as a sombre reminder of how the inmates of the institution lived their lives. It’s a window frame set on top of a concrete slab at the exact height of the windows in the institution. It’s called “A Window too High”, because all the windows at Woodlands were too high for anyone to see out of. There is a reflecting pool in front of the monument, and that’s where we gather.
It’s fitting that we should come together at this particular spot, because we are there to mourn the tragic murders of disabled children and adults at the hands of their caregivers and family members. This year we read the names of more than 700 people, spanning the years between 1981 and 2017, and ranging in age from merely days old to 99 years.
700 names. 700 lives that were taken by the very people charged to love and care for them.
Let that sink in…
What’s been hard for me is that for 3 years I’ve been sending invitations out, asking people who work in support agencies to join us to mourn these lives. This year our small but valiant group likewise posted fliers and called media outlets to let the public know what we were doing, and why. Although our little group was a bit bigger this year – about 30 of us – once again there were few non-disabled allies and no media in attendance.
We’re not sure why so few of the people who call themselves allies come. We’ve heard rumours that it’s too upsetting. I sometimes wonder if those who stay away understand that it’s even more upsetting for the disabled people who do come to the vigil to face this horror. After all, it’s disabled lives we’re mourning.
So this year, we reached out to a larger community of activists in hopes that we might broaden the conversation. This issue is global in scope, and many of us around the world are struggling to bring it to light. Two of those people, Samantha Connor from Perth, Australia, and Catherine Frazee from Halifax, Canada offered words that I was privileged to read aloud at the vigil.
We offer them here with the same hope – that we can begin a serious conversation that we believe we desperately need to be having. The first piece of writing comes from Samantha Connor, and the second (below the image) is from Catherine Frazee.
Thank you, Sam, thank you Catherine, and thank you Leah, for hosting this blog.
Sisters in solidarity.
~ March 2017
A long time ago, I started counting.
I wasn’t a disability activist then. I was interested in the correlation between hate crimes and societal attitudes and I’d noticed that people like me were often murdered, especially by family.
And then I started looking harder.
In 2003, a pair of serial killers from South Australia were jailed for committing eleven murders. And nobody commented on the fact that more than half of the victims were disabled men, chosen because nobody would ever miss them.
Once I started looking, I found more and more names. Autistic children who were stabbed and suffocated and starved by their parents. Disabled women and men who died in hospitals and institutions at the hands of those charged to care for them. Hate crimes and neglect and deaths painted as administrative error.
Scores of them and after a while, the words started leaping off the page at me and making patterns.
Of the filicides, all of the mothers walked free from court. The voices of others invariably cried for forgiveness and the cessation of ‘judgement’, no matter what the parents’ circumstances or level of support. The dead child was reduced to the concept of burden, the parent elevated to the status of martyr and both effectively erased the child’s identity and diminished an atrocity.
Of the hate crimes, disability was rarely painted as a cause. Sometimes there would be commentary about someone being ‘vulnerable’, but even when a person was attacked and murdered as a consequence of hatred based on disability, it was never reported that way. And those cases rarely make it to the Coroners courts – they’re not a ‘death in care’ but a ‘random assault’ in their eyes.
And then there was the neglect, disabled people and children and elders, lying in their own shit or covered in pressure sores and although the courts were a little tougher on their family members, you wondered what those people had gone through before they’d died. Murder at the hands of someone you love is a peculiar kind of torture.
A year later, I set up the Disability Clothesline. Some other disabled women in New Zealand had started a Clothesline over there – disabled women and men paint their stories of abuse and violence onto teeshirts and we hang them in public places. The white shirts are for the people who have died. I paint the white shirts, one by one. Just their names and places and dates of death. The hardest ones to paint are the small ones, sized like the child or infant who has been murdered – sometimes the shirts are so small that it is difficult to fit all the words on.
We hang them out to symbolise ‘hanging out our dirty washing’ – nobody ever talks about disability violence. Our logo is an upturned black triangle and a clothesline wraps around it. In Nazi Germany, half a million disabled children and adults were systematically murdered and they wore this symbol. Nobody talked about them, either.
It isn’t easy to count our people. The Coroners are often our biographers, but we rely on also newspaper articles, casual mentions, friendly journalists. We use their stories like the weapons they could not use to defend themselves. Two years ago, there was an inquiry into violence against disabled Australians and six disabled women, including myself, dressed in black and told the stories of forty of our dead. As we called their names and told their story, we laid a long stemmed white rose in front of us on the table at the Senate. The Senators listened intently, with tears streaming down their faces. We left the roses there. And when they handed down their report, months later, they each wore a white, dried rose pinned to their jackets.
It is wearing, this work. We are all tired of being the teachable moments in the lives of the ignorant and we are tired of defending our worth. There’s an intensely personal element – when someone devalues the life of a murdered child or adult, they’re simultaneously devaluing us. Hard, then, not to wade in and defend our worth and the worth of our brothers and sisters, over and over.
But what spurs us on is the sure knowledge that unless we do this work, disabled children and adults will continue to die. We need to keep reclaiming our people and calling their names and casting sunlight into those dark places where we have been shut out or shut in for so long. This is work that we can only do together and work that we can only do as a community.
We stand and sit with you in solidarity from across the world.
With you, we reclaim our people and call their names.
Today we cradle candles in our trembling hands and we remember. We speak the names of those felled by a callous violence, a violence that far too often cloaks itself in rhetorics of care. We speak their names to honour their humanity, and we pay respect to their humanity by our refusal to turn away from the ugly truth of their murder.
Today we hold the immense weight of remembrance. By acts of will and imagination, we summon forth the human stories of lives that mattered, lives entitled to so much more. We offer remembrance as a shield from oblivion. Although it breaks our hearts, we are determined to remember.
“Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.” These are the words of Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
Today, let us make them our words. Today we reject despair, and so much more. Today we reject indifference, ambivalence and empty reassurance. We stand together in our condemnation of all crimes of hate and predatory violence, and we call out the blinkered bias of a justice system that fails to reckon with the impact of such crime on disabled lives.
We resist the fiction of isolated, singular, aberrant death, and shine a glaring light upon the patterns of ableist disregard that rob us of dignity and welcome. We call out the ventriloquy of compassion invoked to soften the edges of a culture of cold neglect.
We will counter the fervour of exclusion and abuse with a mighty solidarity.
Today we will be seen and heard. Today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow after tomorrow, we will be fearless and outspoken in our opposition to the ideologies and public practices that systematically erase and excuse harms inflicted against our disabled brothers and sisters.
Today we renew our pledge of duty to comrades whose cries are no longer heard. I am honoured to stand with you in that enduring pledge.
Catherine Frazee, February 28, 2017
Emma Van der Klift is an Autistic writer, artist, educator, and activist. Find more of her work at these related links at Broadreach Training:
• Being Autistic: An Interview with Emma Van der Klift
• Conversations that Matter
30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.
© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2017-18)