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My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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The Ultimate Disability Discrimination

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011. Disablism, also sometimes known as ableism can be defined as a form of "social prejudice against people with disabilities".

Here’s one form of social prejudice that scares me silly – The legalisation of physician assisted suicide.

  • When someone without a disability expresses suicidal ideations, they are offered support and therapy. People say "there’s something worth living for".
  • When someone with a disability expresses suicidal ideations, people say they understand. Too often, people with disabilities are helped towards death instead of support and therapy.

Isn’t that the ultimate discrimination? "You have a disability, I understand why you want to die, let me help"…

Ok, so not everyone feels that way. Still, with 52% of the US population who would prefer to be dead than disabled, there is a large segment of the population who would see it as natural that someone with a disability would want to die.

If we look at one of the best known proponents of "mercy killings", Jack Kevorkian, we see that there is a bias towards killing people with disabilities. Kevorkian admitted through his lawyer that he had killed or “helped to die” 100 people (in 1998). This number went up to 130 from Kevorkian’s own claims. He is often portrayed as an advocate for the "terminally ill" – yet the majority (more than 60%) of people Kevorkian helped die were not terminally ill.

And Kevorkian is one of many people who do/did so-called mercy killings.

I’ve already written about this topic (see Euthanasia and Opposing The Legalisation Of Physician Assisted Suicide), but it’s such an important issue, it was worth repeating.

14 thoughts on “The Ultimate Disability Discrimination

  1. Suicide is a basic human right. I have no idea how anyone, disabled or able-bodied, can oppose it. Realizing that it is a basic human right for _everyone_, healthy or sick, disabled or able-bodied, helps erase the strange idea that it is used for oppression of the disabled.

    If we don’t recognize suicide as a human right, it implies that we don’t own our bodies and if we don’t own our own bodies, human rights cannot even exist. Which is a frightening idea.

  2. Thank you for writing one of the first posts for this year\’s Blogging Against Disablism Day! Thanks also for helping to promote this day – I know lots of folks signed up having heard about it from you.

    We\’re half an hour from May 1st here in the UK. At midnight, I\’ll add this post to this year\’s archive.

  3. First blog I’ve read for BADD2011 and this is a very strongly written summary of an extremely important subject. Thank you very much for sharing it.

  4. You know, people who want to kill themselves often have depression or other forms of mental illness, which are also disabilities. I get what you’re trying to say here, believe me, and I think there are a ton of things wrong with physician assisted suicide. But as a person with severe depression who has been suicidal on and off for the majority of my life, I really feel erased in discussions about this topic. Half the time, people talk over PWMI as if we aren’t really disabled, and the other half of the time, they imply that we get more attention and sympathy than people with other disabilities. It’s really disheartening, because it shows me how there are still barriers to PWMI getting recognized as “legitimate” members of the disability rights movement.

  5. Also, people who express suicidal thoughts often do not get sympathy or offers of help. We’re often told it’s our fault, it’s all in our heads, and to shut up and get over it. Also, plenty of people who are suicidal get ENCOURAGED to do so, often by people who supposedly love them.

  6. @Maija, we’ve already been around “suicide is a human right”. It’s not. That is – there is no human rights legislation I know of that says suicide is a human right.

    @Goldfish – thank you for organising this mammoth event. Good stuff.

    @Jo – I agree with you 110% depression and mental illnesses are disabilities. I’m sorry you feel erased from these discussions.

  7. Here from BADD. Interesting post. Beside anyone’s position on suicide, every human should be given the same support to make such a decision. I totally agree that disability adds you to the “not worth living” category by default – which is the whole problem.

    @ Jo, I totally agree.

  8. Like I explained, suicide is clearly, logically and rationally a human right. Arguing against that is irrational.

    Just because the legislation is flawed (in this and many other areas) and just because people set up “suicide prevention organizations” which do much more harm than good doesn’t mean anything (the only way to “prevent suicides” is to improve the society!). People have had very irrational views on things like slavery. The mere word “suicide” completely shuts down rational thinking in many. Just because we don’t agree with someone else’s decision, just because it causes us pain, doesn’t mean it’s wrong, doesn’t mean we have the right to judge it, let alone try to stop it. That is the critical thing that many people fail to understand. People make choices with their lives we don’t agree with. That’s their right, even if we believe they’re making a wrong choice. It’s called freedom of choice, and it is the basis of all human rights.

    Just because something is wrong currently doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed That’s why I am a human rights activist, for disability rights and other human rights. We cannot have disability rights without the right to suicide, that one is very clear and cannot be logically argued against. It’s sad that many disability activists intentionally fight against human rights. :-(

  9. I feel very very ambivalent about this post. While on the one hand I completely accept the logic of “its my body, I should be able to do what I want with it”, and I can certainly see points where I might want to at least contemplate it for myself (although its very difficult to actually know how one would feel in certain situations until one is actually THERE), I also feel ambivalent because I’ve been on the other side.

    A friend of ours committed suicide more than a year ago. He sent my OH a text, saying something along the lines of “by the time you read this I will be dead”. We called the police, to try to get someone to his home to help him, but since we didn’t have an address for him, only a mobile number, the police were limited. Finally word came through that the police had identified him – another friend of his, who did have his address, had gone there, and with the police, had discovered his body. He’d texted all the people in his mobile phone to make sure that his body would, somehow, be found, I suppose.

    I personally feel a lot of anger towards him. Anger for the selfishness of his act. Not because he committed suicide, but the way he chose to end his life. He exercised very little consideration for anyone else, and the stress it put on me and my OH was difficult to take (and shouldn’t have happened). I wonder, sometimes, if society had proper legal measures to end one’s life, that if one was absolutely determined to do so, that they could, in such a way that would avoid some of this kind of pain and stress, that it would be better. But then, there’s the issue of people being forced into suicide by family members/carers, whether by guilt (m”y family would be better off without me”) or by deliberate imposition on the ill person (“you’re a waste of space. just die, so we can have your money”). How you allow for the former without causing problems for the latter, I do not know.

    The other thing at the back of my mind is grief for the people around the person wanting to commit suicide. Suicide rarely happens in isolation, for that matter, death rarely happens in isolation. I recently (last January) lost my father, not to suicide, but a sudden death (heart attack, and no, he wasn’t “ill” that we knew of). In that sense, i’ve experienced the sensation of trying to get to grips with the loss of a loved one who is here one moment.. and gone the next. My Father wasn’t alone when he died, my Mother was with him, and she tells me that he fought to live, fought so hard. And to me, thats an immense comfort, to know that he tried to live, that he didn’t just give up. Selfish, perhaps, but it helps me to deal with the sudden loss better. If I had to deal with that, knowing that the person had deliberately chosen to end their life at that point… I’m not sure, entirely, how I would cope with that. I do know it would make my grief much worse, more difficult to handle.

    So, in all of this, my thoughts are very torn. Yes, Its your body. its my body. and yes, I should have the right, if I decide that i cannot handle things any more, to end things. but in all this, i have to bear in mind the people around me, the people who love me. i appreciate that often, suicide is done at a point when the suicidal person cannot empathise with others around them (like my friend), but this isn’t what you’re talking about, is it? You’re talking about a deliberate decision, taken not when one is in a terrible state of mind, but taken calmly, with forethought for how it will impact on people around them, with consideration.

    yes, this is a rambling post and I apologise, for using your space to work out my feelings on this, but I wanted to get an alternative point of view out there, from someone on the other side, as it were.

  10. @Maija, let’s say for a moment that suicide is a human right – I don’t believe that, but let’s imagine it is for the sake of argument.

    This means that you are advocating for physician assisted suicide to be available to everyone, at any time, for any reason. This includes hormonal teenagers, people who have a bad case (albeit temporary) of the blues, etc.

    If it’s not available to *everyone*, then it remains discrimination.

  11. Suicide counseling should be available for everyone. Which doesn’t mean everyone who walks in saying “I want to kill myself” should be given a lethal injection immediately.

    Sometimes (e.g., in cases of terminal illness and/or untreatable pain) ending one’s life might be appropriate.

    Able-bodied people thinking your disability makes your life not worth living isn’t an appropriate reason, though.

  12. So, if suicide is a basic human right, then what about those who feel justified killing their disabled kids, etc.
    Suicide is an attractive distraction from the heavy burden o living. I wouldn\’t say it is either healthy or a right. But, I don\’t want to argue…I just don\’t want to be \”suicided\” by anyone who grows weary of my presence. My plan is to liver to be over 100 years. I will accept no way out !

  13. @Maija: saying that anyone holding another opinion is being irrational doesn’t help the debate forward. I believe there is a clear case for legalising assisted suicide. I also believe that the disability movement needs to fight against it with every tool at its disposal. Illogical? Not at all.

    The problem isn’t suicide, the problem isn’t disabled people, the problem is the societies in which we live. The attitudes that brainwash normies into believing that they would be better off dead than disabled, that to be disabled is to be a burden, mean that assisted suicide legalisation will inevitably see disabled people seeking suicide not because their situation is intolerable, but because their pre-programmed views and the attitudes of those around them have convinced them that it is the ‘right’ thing to do. There’s a term to describe that, and that term is hate crime.

    Then there are the outright disablist thugs, who’ll tell disablist people they meet in the street that they should be dead, that they should travel to Dignitas (what a misnomer!) to remove themselves from the sight of decent people. Suggest in the comment columns of any of our tabloids that disability alone might not be a good reason for suicide and you’ll be subjected to vile abuse. Scratch society and you’ll find Eugenics lurking not far below the surface.

    Ultimately this is indeed about human rights, the principle that the rights of the individual stop the moment that they would cause harm to others.

    I believe that there is a case for assisted suicide, but I also believe in taking the ethical path, the path of least harm, and legalising assisted suicide is not that path, it will harm far more disabled people than it assists. Disabled people have the maturity to accomodate a law allowing assisted suicide, unfortunately society does not. That isn’t irrational, simply the way the world is.

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