National Disability Day of Mourning: How and why do we mourn?

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By Niamh Malone

“Today we do not whisper, today we speak the unspeakable things”

Fiona Robertson Disability Day of Mourning 2022

National Disability Day of Mourning is an annual event held on the 1st March where the disabled community gathers to mourn and remember those lost since the previous year. The list of names accrued within a 12-month period is so high that, despite best intentions, it is unfeasible to cover a longer time frame in a single vigil.

The National Disability Day of Mourning website tells you that this is a day of memorial specifically for victims of filicide. In this context, filicide is redefined, not only as the murder of a child at the hands of their parents, but as the murder of any disabled person at the hands of their family or carers. Language is going to be a prominent theme throughout this blog as a reflection of how significant language is in the reporting, understanding, and inciting of disabled murders. The disabled community has always been hyper aware of the power of language to diminish the individual, to strip rights, to socially ostracise ‘otherness’, and even to kill. But it also has the power to protect, to change, and to bring together an incredibly strong and defiant community – if it is used in the correct way.

I understand the use of filicide by the Disability Day of Mourning website as a specific and purposeful choice to redefine an established term and consequently shift the language used in discussing the murders of disabled people. In this instance, the choice is part of a comprehensive effort to rework the narrative around the murders of disabled individuals. Universally, the murder of a non-disabled child by their parents would spark horror and outrage, that is to say that the legal definition of filicide is universally condemned. This is the same response that is wanted in reaction to the news of the murder of disabled people, but is almost never seen.

In 2012, the first Disability Day of Mourning was held following the murder of George Hodgins, a 22-year-old autistic man by his mother. The reporting of this murder was disturbing to say the least. George was described by a number of news outlets as ‘high maintenance’, ‘low functioning’, and ‘easily agitated’. In contrast his mother was devoted and loving’. Reporting on crimes against disabled people with language which is sympathetic to the non-disabled perpetrator is by no means unusual; this is just one instance which reflects a wider trend in reporting. The difference with this murder is that it caught the attention of the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Following this, ASAN went on to investigate and write about the phenomenon of diminishing disabled victims to secondary characters in their own murders. From this research, Disability Day of Mourning was born, as was the website which supports it.

What I find so disturbing about the article I linked above, which reported on the murder of George Hodgins, and why I chose to highlight this specific article of the many that were written, was the assertion that hundreds of other mothers of autistic children will come to the same breaking point as George’s mother. That is hundreds of mothers will murder their autistic children. This article was written by the mother and full-time caregiver of an autistic child.

We return to the power of language. By painting the perpetrator as an innocent and understandable victim, acting out of love and no other choice, the reporting of the murders of disabled people acts as contagions, inciting the murder of others. By depicting the murders in this manner, potential future murders are legitimised and encouraged as the excessive sympathy and victimhood attributed to the perpetrator imply that other comparable acts will be met with the same leniency and empathy.

To note, I have and will only be using the terms mother, father, carer, family members in this blog to describe those who carried out the murders. I will be using as much name information for the victims as I have available to me. This is in solidarity with the efforts of Disability Day of Mourning to have the disabled victims recognised, respected, and privileged, both above and independent of their murderers. The Anti-Filicide Handbook also strongly encourages people to use the full name of the victim and not that of the murderer to discourage notoriety and consequently copycat killers.

Time for the part of this blog I understand the temptation to skim: the stats. I appreciate that stats rarely achieve the desired impact on the reader as they can be exceedingly difficult to connect to, but I urge anyone reading this to visit the victims index on the Disability Day of Mourning website. I cannot discuss everyone or give each individual the attention they deserve within the scope of this blog post. There are faces, names, and personalities to each and every one of these statistics. I have tried my best to keep this statistical discussion as human as possible, and I hope you can keep that humanity at the forefront of your mind whilst reading them.

132 names have been added to the list over the last year. It goes without saying that the number of disabled people murdered in this time frame is significantly higher than this. These are only the most notable, most recorded, and most public instances of filicide. Despite this apparent notoriety, the names of the victims are unknown in almost 7% of cases. Instead, we have only the 16-year-old boy from Michigan USA, who suffered chronic and eventually fatal medical neglect at the hands of his family, and the unnamed baby girl from Karnataka India who was abandoned at birth and died from injuries consequently inflicted by a pack of wild dogs.

From the known ages, just under 50% of victims were over the age of 60, most commonly individuals suffering from some form of dementia. This includes the 100-year-old Amalie G. from Hamburg Germany, who was murdered by her carer grandson with an axe over an argument about money. Just over 22% of victims were children. In most cases these deaths were caused by long term neglect and abuse, as in the case of 17-month-old Jermiyah Puskac.

As this research centre is based in the UK, it is easy to distance yourself from this as a horror and tragedy which occurs elsewhere, but is not relevant to you and your life. I would like to bring attention to the fact that 9 of the new entries for vigils this year were for murders committed in the UK. Cecily Kurtz, aged 79, from neglect. Lola James, aged 2 from a severe beating at the hands of her mothers’ boyfriend. Eileen Pearce, aged 89, who was smothered by her son. Patricia Bitters, aged 84, who was beaten to death by her grandson. Stephen Kershaw, aged 65, who was regularly abused and eventually smothered by his stepson and stepson’s girlfriend. Sandra Brown, aged 69, was murdered by her husband. Edna Berry, aged 80, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer and chisel by her husband. Sarah Albone, aged 38, was abused and eventually violently murdered and dumped in a wheelie bin by her husband. Sara Bateman, aged 50, was strangled by her boyfriend using a dog leash.

A majority of the cases recorded on the website are from the USA. This is not necessarily a reflection of the higher rates of disabled murders conducted there, although there are a great deal more murders by gunshot recorded in the USA than any other country on the website (I will make no comment …). It is rather a reflection of the greater wealth of material available for investigations into the Global North. The fact that this website is run and maintained by volunteers mostly from the Global North also plays into the Northern skew seen in the reporting due to the accessible material, and the language barriers faced when looking for news stories from other countries. However, having a volunteer managed website is also one of the benefits of this movement. Due to the strong disabled involvement and leadership at every level of organisation, this is most definitely a movement which privileges disabled narratives, by disabled people, and positions them as the experts on their own lives (something which my PhD strongly engages with). Essentially, this is a community run project, designed to protect, and draw together, that very same community, and there is significant power in that.

So, why am I writing about this here on the Heritage for Global Challenges Research Centre blog? Most simply, it’s because this day and movement is important for the disabled community, identity, and justice. Most realistically, it’s because this discussion and awareness is essential for the protection and continuation of that community. There are countless instances I could highlight that demonstrate the terrifying reality and frequency of copy-cat killers, and consequently how impactful the language used to discuss disabled murders is. Most famously I would draw your attention to Zoe Gross’ excellent blog Killing Words, which discusses the murder of George Hodgins by his mother. Gross concludes by posing a question to the reader: if their initial reaction to the murder of George was sympathy for his mother, have they contemplated the possibility that the woman who murdered her 4-year-old autistic son Daniel merely 3 weeks later had been aware of, and inspired by, their remarks? This example is from 2012, but it is a pattern which is still seen; between October 14th and October 20th 2023 three disabled children between the ages of 3 and 5 were murdered in Sanford, Florida, USA.

Hopefully I have successfully impressed upon you the scale of these murders. If not let me clarify, this is by no means a small scale or localised issue; this is an internationally endemic injustice. To me, this begs the question of why Disability Day of Mourning is not a bigger event. I think this can at least partially be attributed to the controversy that surrounded its formation. Several parents of disabled children voiced opposition to the day, feeling that it was attacking the parents and carers of disabled people. To the people who hold this view I want to be exceedingly clear when I say, this is not about you. This is a day which is not about parents or carers but rather actively and exclusively about disabled people. More so than this, if you have never intentionally harmed or murdered your disabled child, you are not being attacked or implicated in any way. Most parents and carers do not murder their children or those under their care, nor do they want to.

It is so important to have a day which is solely focussed on disabled people, due to the way the murders of disabled people continue to be portrayed in the media and the consequent impact this has on justice. Those who murder disabled people receive significantly reduced sentences to those who have committed the same crime against non-disabled individuals. This is attributed to inherent ableism and the idea that the killing was in some way a kindness. Within media coverage, disabled victims are often not named, and they are presented as burdensome, in some way responsible for their own murder. These attitudes appear to have bled into the justice system and sentencing.

I am sure you’ve noticed I’ve used the word murder a lot in this blog post, and whilst it may feel repetitive, it is an intentional choice. The media uses almost every term they possibly can to avoid using the word murder. Instead, these acts of extreme violence are emotional breakdowns, acts of love, sad but inevitable tragedies, fatal shootings, or even mercy killings. But never murders. Using language in this way perpetuates injustice by minimising the crimes committed, resulting in more lenient sentencing.

Disability Day of Mourning is so important because it is pushing back against a subconscious opinion that so many people seem to hold without realising it. I do not believe that this comes from a place of hatred or bigotry, but rather as a product of the environment, and a discomfort with applying a critical lens to oneself. This is work that people must do if they are serious about wanting to support the disabled community. It is hard to fight attitudes that people hold strongly. It is even harder to fight attitudes people are not aware they are holding.

So, what can you do with all this information? If this has inspired you to begin to observe Disability Day of Mourning, great. Check social media for your closest planned vigil, and if there is not one please feel free to organise one yourself. This does not need to be a large public event, but just take the time to read through the lists yourself, reflect on the people and their lives and genuinely mourn what has been lost. If you want to do more, if this has resonated with you and you want to take the message from this movement and apply it more broadly to your life, even better. The main way you can do this is to think critically about the language you use, and how you engage with the community.

The Anti-Filicide Handbook is the most succinct and clear resource available to set out how to interact with instances of disabled murders. The overall takeaway is to be aware of what you are saying, the impact that could have, and why you are saying it. There is no reason for disabled murders to be written about any differently to any other instance of filicide. This is not a mentality that can, or should, be applied only to instances of filicide. Always think about the language you use, check yourself and the assumptions you are making about another person’s ability or right to participate in certain events, or even life itself. The attitudes which become apparent through the reporting of filicide do not originate in the instance of reporting, and in fact have much deeper origins. These are opinions and beliefs which are formed in the context of the environment of the holder. They take hold and flaunt an apparent unquestionable truth and authority long before they are expressed by the individual. This environment is what needs to be challenged, and the best way to do this is to be aware of and question the language and beliefs of yourself and those around you when discussing disabled individuals and communities in every instance, not just at the extreme of filicide. It is alright to not know and to make mistakes, but you should be striving to correct, amend, and improve from these if you espouse to care about the community.

I appreciate that this has maybe not been the most upbeat and optimistic read of your life but, as much as this may shock you, I am full of hope for the future. It is slow, painful, and frustrating but change is happening. There are incredible disabled groups like Sins Invalid who are pushing the boundaries of what is expected from disabled people, unabashedly forcing people to engage with the critical self-lens I discussed. These groups are not only pushing for change and recognition but providing safe spaces and resources for the formation and healing of a strong disabled community.

And I have so much hope in the disabled community. Disabled rage is a beautiful and powerful tool which can force (or strongly encourage) people to not only pay attention to injustice, but to actively fight it. I will leave you with this spoken word poem by Fiona Robertson, which is an exceptional example of disabled rage, but also with a gentle reminder. No matter your identity, this is a rage you should feel just as deeply as Fiona, and this is an injustice you can actively fight in your day-to-day life by critically evaluating yourself and how you view and interact with disabled people.

I am hopeful that next March 1st the list will be shorter but that more people will read it and the reaction will be universal outrage. It is in your hands; it is in ours.

References:

‘Anti-Filicide Toolkit’, ASAN, (Revised January 2024), https://autisticadvocacy.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/ASAN-Anti-Filicide-Toolkit-Complete.pdf

David Lohr, ‘How Murder Victims With Disabilities Get Blamed For Their Own Deaths’, Huffpost, (March 14, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/murder-victims-disabilities-mercy-killings_n_58bd5abfe4b05cf0f401b603

David Perry et al., The Ruderman White Paper: On media coverage of the murder of people with disabilities by their caregivers, Ruderman Family Foundation, (March 2017), https://rudermanfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Murders-by-Caregivers-WP_final_final.pdf

‘Disability Community Day of Mourning’, ASAN, https://autisticadvocacy.org/mourning/

‘Disability Day of Mourning’, Disability Day of Mourning, https://disability-memorial.org/

Emily Alpert Reyes, ‘’None of those were mercy killings’: A vigil for disabled people killed by family’, Los Angeles Times, (March 19, 2023), https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-03-19/disability-day-of-mourning

‘Fiona Robertson – Disability Day of Mourning 2022 || Spoken Word Poetry ||’ I Am Loud Productions, (June 1, 2022), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rjlg9UsWOI

Genevive Belmaker, ‘Reporting on DIsability with Sensitivity, not Sensationalism’, Nieman, (March 30, 2016), https://nieman.harvard.edu/articles/reporting-on-disability-with-sensitivity-not-sensationalism/

Lisa Fernandez and Joe Rodriguez, ‘Parents of autistic children speak out on Sunnyvale murder-suicide’, Mercury News, (August 3, 2012), http://web.archive.org/web/20160724215430/http://www.mercurynews.com:80/breaking-news/ci_20133088/parents-autistic-children-speak-out-sunnyvale-murder-suicide

Nicki Pecchenino, ‘Guest opinion: Death by Legislature’, Santa Cruz Sentinel, (September 3, 2012), https://web.archive.org/web/20140620000335/http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/ci_20139097

Rosemarie Garland Thomson, ‘The Case for Conserving Disability’, Bioethical Inquiry, Vol. 9, (2012)

Sara Luterman, ‘A Disability Day of Mourning: Remembering the Murdered and the Vulnerable’, The Nation, (March 1, 2021), https://www.thenation.com/article/society/disability-day-mourning/

E. Smith, ‘’We’re Not Burdens at All’: A Q&A on Media Coverage and the Murders of Disabled People’, rewire news group, (April 6, 2017), https://rewirenewsgroup.com/2017/04/06/not-burdens-qa-media-coverage-murders-disabled-people/

Shaun Greech, ‘Decolonising Eurocentric disability studies: why colonialism matters in the disability and global South debate’, Social Identities, Vol. 21, No. 1, (2015)

‘The euthanasia debate’, Global News, (March 17, 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXCTAO1N6bg

Zoe Gross, ‘Killing Words’, ASAN, (April 10, 2012), https://autisticadvocacy.org/2012/04/killing-words/

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