Christmas 2016

A holiday greeting - the words "Happy Holidays in red with cartoon sprigs of holly, holly berries, and mistletoe arranged around the words.

Image Description: A holiday greeting – the words “Happy Holidays in red with cartoon sprigs of holly, holly berries, and mistletoe arranged around the words.

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I had hoped to find time to do a new Christmas post for this year…for a variety of reasons, I didn’t. In the past I’ve reblogged my 2014 post, “When Christmas Doesn’t Mean Family”, and I’ve decided to again, with apologies to those who have read it before. I read it it over and it reminded me of something that I’ve been thinking a lot about this Christmas season…that for all the fuss about whether it’s more appropriate to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”, either well-intentioned greeting makes a fundamental assumption that for some people there’s a hope in the universe of finding joy in late December and early January, whatever festival they celebrate or don’t celebrate.

For some people, for any number of reasons, the holidays just aren’t happy times. And it’s very difficult, when you feel like you’re just holding on, to find a place in society from November onward where it feels okay to say, “I’m feeling sad/angry/frightened/lost/hopeless/lonely/confused this Christmas. Not merry. Not happy. Not jolly. I am barely holding on and trying my hardest just to get through the holidays.”

I have had a couple of Christmases where I have felt like I was just holding on. To all the people who are feeling that way — you are not alone. It’s hard to believe when it feels like you’re the only one who can’t get hold of the Christmas spirit, but there are so many more people than anyone thinks who dread this time of year.

And if you start to doubt that you can get through it, you need to reach out to the people that want to help you — even if you feel like there’s no one in your life in your life that will listen, you can always call a help line…click here to find the suicide hotlines that operate in your country.

You can get through this. Please reach out for help if you need it.

May we all experience the joy and peace of the season, this Christmas and throughout the year.

Here is “When Christmas Doesn’t Mean Family”

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In the grocery store yesterday, sharing Christmas greetings with an acquaintance, she said that she thought the most important part of the holiday season was spending time with family…didn’t I agree?

I nodded, because it seemed expected of me, but the question irked me. I’m not sure why I’ve felt especially this year, knowing that I will be surrounded by my own family for Christmas, a keen awareness that there are plenty of people in society who won’t. The assumption seems to be that everyone has a family to go home to for Christmas, or that people with family will be looking forward to that Christmas visit home, when that’s not always the case.

When Your Family Has Forgotten You — Or Doesn’t Even Know You

When intellectually disabled people in Ontario started to be moved out of institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them didn’t have any family that they knew about. Doctors had advised families to institutionalize these intellectually disabled men and women as young children and to forget about them. So, as adults that had been raised in institutions, these men and women found themselves without any family that they knew of (although some of them may have certainly had families, perhaps even family members that had never even been told about them) and in towns where support agencies had spots for them, with no connections at all otherwise.

I volunteered at agencies where staff used to invite the people they supported into their homes for holidays, to give them a place to go. It seemed natural to me, as staff were already providing most of the functions that a family would for these people anyway. But when I went away for school to train to work with intellectually disabled people, I was told that this was wrong, and that staff shouldn’t be acting as friends. If people were going to go away for Christmas, my instructors said, they should be making friends in the community and visiting their homes — they should have non-staff friends.

I understand now what my instructors were trying to say, but at the time I was angry. “Show me the families that will do this,” I said, Sometimes I still say this, when I hear people suggest that the government shouldn’t be caring for disabled people, but that volunteers and churches should be doing it — “Show me the families”.

“Show me the families that will do this,” I said to my professors, “and tell me what’s wrong with an agency person opening their home, on their own, unpaid time, to a person that they support, for the holidays,”

This was one of the first of many things on which both faculty and I refused to budge, but the trend has gone in favour of faculty’s position that day — and I do understand why. A natural support is always better than a paid one.

But it does leave people alone on Christmas Day.

(If you’re at all familiar with the abuse that people suffered in Ontario institutions like Huronia Regional Centre, I think that you’d suspect as I do that Christmas alone is infinitely preferable to never leaving an institution at all. But that’s an assumption on my part. I’ve never asked anyone about this.)

And it’s not really the point, anyway.

Christmas Isn’t Just for People with Family

My family used to have Ivy over at Christmas (we don’t now, for a variety of reasons), but Ivy is my very special friend and we didn’t think anything of it. I believe that we were an exception. There’s still a perception out there among people that don’t have experience with intellectually disabled people that friendships with them are too difficult and too much responsibility, let alone invites home for holidays. This is slowly changing, as society in general starts to have more access to intellectually disabled students through integrated programs in school and in adulthood in workplaces and churches and community activities. After all, Ontario doesn’t institutionalize intellectually disabled people anymore.

But in many ways they still walk on the edges of communities. They aren’t fully integrated. Friendships with the “normals” don’t come as easily.

Like any other demographic in society, some without families are fine with spending Christmas alone. But some aren’t. And, of course, this isn’t the only group in society with some members that may not have family with which they can spend Christmas, or who just can’t, as much as they’d like to, spend Christmas with family. Essential services have to stay running, and people have to work in order to do that. Some people simply live too far away from family to get home every year. Some people have lost family members, or whole families, and are doing everything they can to hang on at Christmas.

If you’re spending Christmas with family, I hope that you enjoy it, and I sincerely wish you and all your loved ones all the best in the coming new year. And if you’re alone, whether it’s by circumstance or choice, merry Christmas and all the best of the new year to you as well…the joy of this season isn’t just for those who are surrounded by family, and I hope it finds you well.

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Conflicting Advocate Hats: Alex Spourdalakis

Content Note: Ableism, murder of disabled child, suicide, abortion

Gray sad face with closed eyes. Keyword: Alex Spourdalakis

Image Description: Gray sad face with closed eyes.

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14-year-old Alex Spourdalakis was murdered by his mother Dorothy Spourdalakis and godmother Jolanta Skordzka.

And I say “murdered” deliberately, not to garner an emotional response, but because Alex’s mother and godmother did legally murder him. They gave him an overdose of sleeping pills with the intention of bringing about his death. When it became apparent that the pills weren’t going to kill him, they stabbed him repeatedly, and slit his wrists so deeply that they almost cut his hands off. They murdered him.

All this happened in 2013, but Alex Spourdalakis’ murder and the trial are back in the news again recently because Dorothy Spourdalakis and Jolanta Skordzka have been released from prison. They pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and were sentenced to time served. After getting credit for the three years that they spent at the the Cook County prison, they are now free women. They spent significantly less time in prison than Robert Latimer served for murder of his disabled daughter, Tracey or that that Kelly Stapleton will for the attempted murder of her autistic daughter, Isobel, both of which were considerably less violent crimes.

Alex Spourdalakis and Two Important Conversations

As I did when I wrote about Kelly and Issy Stapleton, there are two important conversations to have when we talk about what happened to Alex Spourdalakis. One of them is what happened to drive a mother to such hopelessness that she felt there was such a lack of options for her child that his death was the most preferable. Overall, the media has painted Dorothy Spourdalakis as a woman who couldn’t get any support to deal with Alex’s specialized support needs, but the Chicago Tribune talks about how Mary Betz of Autism Illinois visited Dorothy Spourdalakis when Alex was hospitalized to find out what supports she needed, and was told that only a lawyer was necessary. The same article talks about how Dave Clarkin, a Department of Child and Family Services spokesman, said that family members refused “referrals to community-based services ranging from respite to psychological counseling.”

Why?

What is it about services that made the family reluctant to accept them?

The second discussion is about how even if there’s a total lack of services, it’s not an excuse to murder a child. And I acknowledge that the stress level for parents taking care of disabled children can get very high — it still doesn’t make killing a disabled child excusable. There’s a perception in our culture that if a disabled child is in pain, or if we figure that the child isn’t going have what we define as “quality of life”, or if care of the child or watching the child go through the challenges potentially involved with having a disability is going to take too great a toll on the parent(s), then the child’s murder not only becomes justifiable, but understandable.

If the child is disabled.

We’re disgusted by parents who kill their non-disabled children.

But when the child is disabled…different story. And there needs to be more discussion about that — there needs to be more discussion about how when you kill a disabled child, you are killing a child, period, and the deliberations of the justice system and the penalties for that action need to reflect that.

Read this blog for more about the murder of disabled children and two important discussions

Dorothy Spourdalakis and Jolanta Skordzka were originally charged with first degree murder, they should have been convicted with first-degree murder, and they should have received the appropriate sentence. Parents and relatives don’t get to decide which children get to have a future and which don’t.

I was speaking about this last week, and a friend said, “Careful…you’re starting to sound pro-life again.”

Alex Spourdalakis and Conflicting Advocate Hats

When Zika first emerged, I blogged about how abortion for ableist reasons sometimes makes me feel conflicted as someone who is both pro-choice and opposed to ableism, and how I deal with that conflict. Alex Spourdalakis’ story brought up some internal conflict as well, once my friend explained his statement…how could I be so judgemental of Dorothy Spourdalakis for denying her son the right to live based on her own needs, when I essentially gave women who had abortions a free pass for doing exactly the same thing?

“That’s *not* what I do,” I said.

“Isn’t it?”

I went home and thought about it.

And lost a bit of sleep.

And decided that no, that’s *not* what I do, although you’re certainly welcome to disagree.

Sounding the Same, But In Fact Very Different

Very soon after starting this blog and reading other peoples’ blogs, I started coming across perspectives that made me question, for really the first time, what my stance on abortion was going to be if I was going to be a disability activist. It was a more complicated question than I’d thought, and it made me fine-tune my stance to “It’s not a baby until it can live outside the mother” which can both simplify and complicate the whole business.

For the purposes of my friend’s query, however, it makes things very simple — for me.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t using the word “murder” in this context to evoke emotion because Alex was legally murdered. I just as deliberately *won’t* use the word “murder” when I’m talking about abortion because “murder” is a legal term that presupposes that a fetus is a person. And there’s where the rubber hits the road for me. My friend may be correct in that the language that I use to talk about the murder of disabled children sounds like the language that some (not all) pro-life people use to talk about abortion, but the two situations couldn’t be more different in my eyes.

Alex Spourdalakis was a person with rights guaranteed to him by both the United States Constitution and by the United Nations. He was a minor in his mother’s custody, which meant that she was responsible for his well-being. Her rights as a US citizen do not guarantee her a child that is easy to take care of, but in the state of Illinois a parent can voluntarily surrender a child should care of that child become too difficult for the parent to manage — it’s a drastic step involving relinquishing parental rights, but it’s not as drastic as making a profoundly ableist assumption that a disabled child has no chance at happiness in life and that death would be preferable to life in “the system” and committing murder based on those those assumptions.

Even though Dorothy Spourdalakis’ intention was obviously to kill herself after murdering Alex, her suicide note indicated that his murder was about what *she* couldn’t deal with putting him through anymore and with what she didn’t want for him (as it seems to often be in these cases.) A picture circulated through the media, showed the following excerpts from her handwritten note, touted as reasons that Dorothy believed Alex Spourdalakis was better off dead:

  • Alex will not be neglected and abused by the medical community anymore.
  • Alex will not suffer under “the system”
  • Alex will not be discriminated against anymore
  • Alex will not be treated as “retarded” or less than human because he is disabled and cannot speak for himself.

I have empathy for parents that are beaten down by a lack of support and the pain of seeing their beloved children suffering. I really do. But justifying the murder a 14-year-old who is “disabled and cannot speak for himself” in the name of getting him away from those that would treat him as “less than human” would be laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating. After all, what could be more dehumanizing than deciding that you have the right to take that child’s life based on your assumptions on his feelings about it? So forgive me if I can’t buy Dorothy Spourdalakis’ noble-sounding rhetoric.

Murdering your child because of any of the things she mentioned (or, as I believe it more accurately is, a parental desire not to see a disabled child deal with those things) is not okay. It’s simply not.

Which brings me back to what my friend said to me. As I said, Alex Spourdalakis (and Tracey Latimer, and everyone on this list of disabled people murdered by parents or caregivers, which is only current to the end of 2014) were people that were murdered. They had legal rights that a fetus (or developing child, if you prefer) doesn’t — and that I’m not invested in fighting for a fetus to get, frankly (or interested in arguing about why that position is right or wrong.) That’s a whole other fight to me, and one that, for a variety of reasons, I’m not willing to take on.

I do feel very strongly about the murder of disabled people and the how their murderers get the sympathy of the public and media and the leniency of the justice system. It’s a fight that I *will* take on because it’s simply not right.

Bottom Line

So that’s why my friend’s challenge to my thinking didn’t make me lose (much) sleep — and why I’ll continue to fight to make sure that:

1) There’s more investigation into why parents get pushed into these places of desperation, where murdering their disabled children seems like the only option for dealing with the challenges that they encounter on that journey

2) Ableism in all forms continues to be recognized and eliminated as much as possible.

3) Safe and affordable abortion is available to all women, regardless of their reason for making that choice.

I can manage wearing conflicting advocate hats, but I’m glad that people call me on it when my thinking appears inconsistent. I need that to stay the best advocate I can be.

Rest in peace, Alex Spourdalakis. I will not forget you.

Please read the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s Statement on the Sentencing of Alex Spourdalakis’ Murderers

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