Murder, Not Mercy Killing

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The Disability Day of Mourning to commemorate people with disabilities murdered by caregivers will be observed on March 1 in more than 50 communities across the globe. 

A person with a disability is murdered by their parent or guardian about once a week. At least 219 such murders happened in the United States from 2011 to 2015. Due to underreporting and non-disclosure of victims’ disabilities, this figure may be much higher.

Sadly, media reports about these murders tend to be told from the perspective of the perpetrators, without providing context or counter views. In 2015, the media never quoted someone with a disability in their reporting of these murders. Reports rarely question the claims of “hardship” put forward by perpetrators and their defense attorneys.

“Overall, such coverage leads to further dehumanization of people with disabilities, spreads the idea that their lives are worth less than non-disabled lives, and contributes to the exclusion of people with disabilities,” researcher David Perry states.

Perry’s whitepaper, On Media Coverage of the Murder of People with Disabilities by Their Caregivers, examines the mortal cases of the sad pattern that people with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

Perry writes, “Journalists, consciously or unconsciously, often write stories that build sympathy for the murderer and the circumstances that led them to their crime, while the person with the disability is erased from the story.” For example, most reports about the murder of Alex Spourdalakis give voice to the denials and excuses of the two caregivers who killed Alex without reporting that they had received referrals for supports “ranging from respite to psychological counseling.”

This whitepaper lists a number of best practices for journalists (and for us who consume the news) such as “Don’t take the murderer’s word for it” and says that these crimes should be reported as “murder” not “mercy killing.”

Besides keeping a critical eye on news reports, we can take practical steps to make these crimes less likely.

  • Gladly pay taxes that provide supports for families living with disabilities. Scripture repeatedly emphasizes that we must look after one another. Families touched by disability often need more support that those who do not have disabilities, but private organizations will never provide enough for the need.
  • Support those private organizations too!
  • Look for the people in your congregation and neighborhood who have disabilities and find out how you might help. Even something simple such as allowing parents to be free of responsibility for caring for their disabled child during worship and Sunday school can work wonders. Researcher Erik Carter asks: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Sunday were the best day of the week for families who have children with disabilities?”

What is your church doing to assist people with disabilities and their caregivers? You might just be preventing a tragedy.

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Very thought provoking article. I appreciate the emphasis on the point of view of the person with disabilities, and also how the church community can help relieve the parents on Sunday. 

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Thanks Robert. I know how challenging life can become for some caregivers. Communities of faith can show love in powerful ways to them through the simple (though not always easy) gifts of time and help.