Lebensunwertes Leben

Blue, over at The Gimp Parade, blogged about the murder of a disabled man:

In New Zealand last week, a man who stabbed his roommate six times in the neck before slitting his throat has escaped the typical life sentence for murder, receiving instead a maximum of 12 years with possible parole in seven. The judge awarded the defendant the shorter sentence because he suffered from “accumulated stress” and because the victim was disabled.

Keith McCormick, who had won several medals in the Paralympics, was watching TV when his roommate Eric Neil Smail came home drunk and decided to kill him. The fact that Smeal was a part-time caregiver for McCormick helped guide the judge toward leniency despite there being absolutely no evidence McCormick wished to die.

Blue brings the anger. Go read her post.

There’s something about this rationalization that strikes me; maybe my points will be redundant, but here goes.

In “The Disability Gulag” and assorted other writings, Harriet MacBryde Johnson makes the point that terms like heroic measures and special accomodations can be extremely ableist: they start at a zero/norm of “needs no assistance,” and trend upward through “needs a lot of assistance.” This can be a problem, because it implies that lives like hers exist at an extreme of social obligation; her needs are not given parity, and her life becomes an indulgence. It also means that people most in need of recognition are least likely to receive it.

That scale is attached to another one, which goes from “living a full life” through “living a compromised life” to “might as well be dead”–and, in some cases, to “not living.” Because I–and Eric Neal Smail–can walk, our lives are by definition full and worthwhile. Because Keith McCormick used a wheelchair, his life was…less so. While the judge did not go so far as to say that his life was worthless, or make it out to be a contradiction in terms, he did argue that Keith McCormick had less to take away. That prejudice extended, I believe, even to Smail’s sentencing: those years spent in prison would be years taken off of a full life, and it’s unfair to expect Smail to trade them for years taken off of an inferior life.

Going back to what Harriet MacBryde Johnson said about ableist measures of extraordinary: a temporarily able-bodied person is less likely to need an assistant. That situation is “extraordinary.” Problems like healthcare and public-health discrimination that might compromise assistant care or access are extraordinary. Worries about licensing laws, or enforcement of any professional standards whatsoever, are extraordinary. Anything that could cause or manufacture “fatigue,” from budget cuts to inadequate training to hatred of disabled people, is extraordinary.

So when a court decides that an assistant has less of a responsibility to hurt disabled people, or decides that sustained contact with disabled people mitigates culpability for murder, the only vulnerability it creates is an “extraordinary” one. This decision poses an enormous threat to people who need caregivers. It defines reliance on caregivers as an imposition on those who provide care–so much so that disabled people may expect violent reprisal for all that “stress.” All of that is invisible, because lives in which caregivers are mundane are invisible.

2 comments for “Lebensunwertes Leben

  1. May 22, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    Piny over at Feministe recently discussed my post on the New Zealand murder where the convicted man received a lighter-than-typical sentence for killing a disabled man…. Then Bob over at Creative Destruction riffs off of Piny’s post and things go downhill from there.

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