March 2, 2024

Hiding behind disability stigmas


This archived article was written by: Rodrigo Leon

Recently, Robin Williams’ widow, Susan, was interviewed by Amy Robach of ABC where she said that depression didn’t kill her husband; she claimed that Lewy Body Dementia caused him to commit suicide. The dialogue around Williams’ death has incredibly damaging repercussions for disabilities.
People are trying to justify the suicide of Williams and attempted to use disability as a scapegoat. This rationalization is based on the idea that being disabled is worse than being dead. We see products of this idea everywhere from the way we talk to how we treat others.
When you take the time to analyze language, a pattern begins to appear. Many words used to degrade someone originated to describe the disabled. Retard, lame, crippled, crazy, psycho, dumb, moron, lunatic, idiot, cretin, etc., all these words were created to socially or medically describe disabled people, but now we use them to insult one another. This is produced and reproduces the ideas that the disabled body is sub-human and not worthy of the status of human.
The notion of a disabled person’s sub-humanity is noticeable when people interact with disabled people. They attempt to become a caretaker and make decisions for them assuming they know what is best for the disabled person. Decisions about the disabled person’s life is no longer under their control like when we take care of a pet. Both lose autonomy over their own life, something that as a society we believe is a right all people should have, yet we don’t give this right to disabled people.
This framing of disability leads to the idea that being disabled is worse than being dead. This is apparent when we look at “do not resuscitate” forms in hospitals. DNR’s are recommended to disabled people significantly more often than to abled-bodied individuals. This idea has even more dangerous consequences when you look at infanticide rates, with disabled children killed at dramatically higher rates than able-bodied children. Abortion rates see a similar discrepancy, when a fetus is given a significant chance to be born disabled they are aborted at dramatically increased rates.
Combine all of these ideas, and you reach the conclusion that the disabled body is expendable, thus you have a right to end it. This explains why, as a Supreme Court brief shows, at least half of all people shot and killed by police each year are disabled. Many of these murders come with little or no repercussion to the police officer because the officer didn’t kill a person, they killed a “cripple (originating from the word kripple meaning without intellectual power, used in literature to mean useless and, modernly, equated to a horrible fate)” so no conviction is made. We see this pattern again with violent crimes in general with twice as many disabled people being victims of violent crime and having higher chances of being re-victimized.
Susan Williams’ rationalization of her husband’s death is too normal, yet it is still harmful. This kind of dialogue reconstitutes the ideas that kills many disabled people every year. We can’t continue claiming that every tragedy is a disability’s fault because it often isn’t. Be mindful of your language and actions, and take the time to notice how they reproduce these ideas.