Vigils To Honor People With Disabilities Killed By Caregivers
In 2012, George Hodgins — a California adult with autism — was the victim of a murder-suicide carried out by his mother.
“People didn’t really talk in the aftermath of the murder about who George was as a person,” said Zoe Gross, the director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “A lot of the news coverage just focused on people saying he was difficult to have around or he was described as high-maintenance, in just a really insulting and dismissive way to talk about a murder victim.”
Gross decided to organize a candlelight vigil in memory of Hodgins and all people with disabilities who had been murdered by their relatives, and started the annual National Disability Day of Mourning to commemorate victims on March 1.
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Fifty communities from San Francisco to Washington, DC, and as far as Canada and Australia will convene this Thursday to hold vigils of their own and memorialize people with disabilities who’ve been murdered by their caregivers.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has worked to compile a list of names of victims, which are read aloud at the vigils. While Gross acknowledges the list is incomplete, it includes more than a thousand names, about 150 of whom were killed within the last year.
“I think it’s very important that the list of people be memorialized because there may not have been a time when a community got together to mourn people and to say it was wrong that they were killed and that their lives mattered,” said Gross, who received a White House Champions of Change award for her work in 2013.
When the murders of people with disabilities are covered in the media, they are often covered irresponsibly, Gross said, showing empathy for the murderer instead of the victim.
“As disabled people, that’s really difficult to see,” Gross said. “It’s just thrown in your face what society thinks of you and what your life is worth.”
Blair Chisholm, a senior at the University of Maryland, is organizing Maryland’s first vigil to observe the National Disability Day of Mourning this year.
The College Park vigil will feature several speakers and Chisholm will host a discussion after the list of names is read.
“It’s really to raise awareness and also to have a space for the community to process their grief and anger about the issue,” Chisholm said.
The general public often isn’t aware that people with disabilities can be targeted with violence, which is why Chisholm believes the event is important to observe.
“A lot of the victims were either institutionalized or they didn’t leave their home often or at all, so it’s cases that are not well known,” she said.
Gross said the issue is more prevalent than people think — the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is adding hundreds of names to its list of victims each year, she said.
“At the end of the day, I’m still doing it for the victims whose names are on the list because they had everything taken away from them and in death they continued to be treated unfairly and discriminated against,” she said.