Disability Day of Mourning

Published March 1, 2022

Content warning: This article contains references to violence against persons with disabilities. 

If December 1, UN International Day for Persons with Disabilities, is a celebration; then March 1 is a far more somber affair.

Today marks Disability Day of Mourning, an event intended to commemorate those with disabilities worldwide who have lost their lives to family or other caregivers. It’s also a space to mourn what ableism has taken from the community; the accomplishments that will never come to pass because of the lives deemed not worth living. Disability-Memorial.org lists known names, backstories, and legal charges going back more than forty years. In 2021, they counted 77 disabled people murdered by those they should have been able to trust, many children or seniors. More than half of these murders were conducted in the United States. Some were shot, others starved − drowned, chained, punched − read the other entries. All of them were horrifying, all of them preventable.

These numbers are shocking and they are also incomplete. Many disabled people die from elder abuse, whether they have taken the label or not. A study completed over the last five years – cited by the National Center for Elder Abuse – noted 15.7% of elders reporting abuse. Preventable deaths in long-term care and institutions are notoriously hard to report on. Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) – which is involved with the disability memorial project – provides an anti-filicide guide each year. The 2022 edition points to why there needs to be a higher focus on the deaths of disabled children.

“Typically, when a child without a disability is murdered by their parents, everyone stands united in condemnation. No one attempts to understand, justify, or explain the murder. No one expresses sympathy for the murderer. No one argues that every parent has had moments or thoughts like that. No one understands. No one suggests that if the child had been easier or the family had had more support, this could have been avoided. The crime is punished harshly, and the victim is remembered and mourned. When someone with a disability is murdered by their parents, the opposite happens.”

ASAN points to the apologetic wording that some media use regarding filicide-related deaths. It is not merciful to murder someone, yet societal perception tends to persist. This 2017 piece in the Huffington Post, where noted disability advocate Vilissa Thompson is quoted as saying “Let us not obscure the fact that murder is murder,” shows in detail just how dismissive stories on the topic can be.

As ASAN and many others – including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – have noted, filicide is notoriously difficult to track. However, research done in 2012 by academics at the University of California-Irvine found that 54% of victims of filicide-suicide – where the murdered kill themselves – were autistic. The youngest person on the list was just ten months old, and the oldest? 94.

So, today, if you can, take a moment to read the names, read the stories, and reflect on just how dangerous a world disabled people live in. Living is the ultimate point of access, but that’s taken from far too many.