I've been struggling reading about the alleged murder-suicide that happened in Sydney earlier this week.
Two parents, their children and their dog were found dead in their home. Police report an elaborate gas system was deliberately set up in the home. Media states the children had profound disabilities. Neighbours said they were good, loving parents.
(It has also been reported that the mother wanted to move back to her homeland of Colombia "to relieve the crushing pressure of raising two severely autistic children.")
The focus on the children's disability in reports suggest their disability might have been a motive. While we don't know all the facts, the media has a lot to answer for in its reporting and portrayal of people with disabilities.
The commenters sympathise with the reports of the alleged murder-suicide. Comments like: "It's understandable." "Walk a mile in their shoes." "We shouldn't judge." "It's so hard raising children with special needs." "As a parent of children on the spectrum, I relate." And, "It was an act of love." (You can read some actual comments here.)
I can't imagine the pain felt by the family's loved ones.
It's a tragedy too awful to comprehend. The wider disability community is hurting too. This needs to be talked about. And I have tried to write this as respectfully as possible. If this case does relate to the stress of disability on a family, then:
The level of sympathy towards parents who kill their disabled children is much different to the level of sympathy towards other parents who have killed non disabled children. (Briannon Lee also writes about the level of focus on the parents in these stories, as opposed to the children. Read her excellent piece from an autism/parent perspective here.)
When Robert Farquarson drove his car into a Victorian lake on Fathers Day 2005, killing his three children, media described the murder as "incomprehensible" and a "cowardly act". But when a parent allegedly murders their disabled child, the public (and judges, jurors) sympathises, emphathises, even. Because it's difficult raising a child with a disability.
This is ableism. It is as though a disabled life is worth less than a non-disabled one.
Countless disabled people are impacted by violence and murder, and the whole disability community is affected by how these cases are judged and the way the media reports on them. These incidents aren't infrequent. (You can read about some of the disabled people who have been killed in Australia at the White Flower Memorial page. The White Flower Memorial serves to remember those with disabilities who have died in institutional care, in detention and in domestic care situations.)
I've not been a parent (nor a parent of a disabled child). I haven't experienced the strain and the worries. I don't have autism. But I've been a disabled child. I've seen my parents struggle. I've experienced discrimination, exclusion, financial hardship, pain and ableism. I've also been told that I shouldn't have been born and that I'm a burden. Many of my disabled friends have heard similar things about them, too.
Tragedies like Monday's shake the disability community. It's incredibly sad - I'm saddened that the family is dead and I'm sad a lack of support may have driven a parent to this. But I'm sadder at the commenters justifying that killing disabled people is understandable because the children are disabled. This does nothing for disabled people's self worth. Imagine what it's like to hear news reports about murders of people like you, or to read comments that are (often unintentionally) ableist, saying they understand why a parent may have murdered their disabled child. Many disabled people are struggling with the news right now, especially with the commentary excusing it.
When a parent kills their disabled child, it's believed to be a mercy killing. Hell, an anonymous mother has already penned a piece for Mamamia saying she and her husband have discussed killing their disabled children.
In 2014, after Geoff Hunt murdered his wife and children and then killed himself near Holbrook, media reports painted him as a victim. It was a burdensome task looking after his wife who acquired a brain injury a few years prior. The reasons he murdered his wife and kids seemed almost understandable.
At the time, Stella Young wrote:
"When we hear of a crime like this, we quite rightly recoil in horror. And yet, when we hear that a murdered wife is also a woman with a disability, we can find ourselves a little bit less horrified. As though her status as a disabled woman gives us a little more empathy towards the perpetrator of violence. It's victim blaming at its very worst."
Again, if this case does relate to the stress of disability on a family, then:
More respite and emotional support needs to be provided to parents and carers so it never comes to this. Stigma around disability needs to be erased. Perhaps a white flag system needs to be in place - when someone is struggling, they can safely take their children to care. I don't know the answers and I can't bear to think why this happened, nor read the comments.
We all need to play a part in ensuring people with disabilities and their families are included and supported in the community, and can ask for and receive adequate help. But murder is never justified because a disabled child or adult becomes too much for someone to cope with.
My thoughts are with the family and everyone who loved them.
This article originally appeared on Carly Findlay's blog.
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