I was invited again this year to give a short talk as part of the Disability Day of Mourning vigil held in Western North Carolina on the campus of the University of North Carolina Asheville on March 1, 2019. The Disability Day of Mourning is an annual event to honor and remember disabled people killed by their families or caregivers. The names of the dead are read, and there are a few talks and readings. This is the one I gave this year.
Human beings have hated disabled people forever.
They have cast them out and cursed them, left them to die, vilified and mocked them, blamed them, denied them care, attacked them, and killed them.
Human beings have loved disabled people forever.
They have saved them and protected them, cared for them, sometimes hid them, married them, raised them, accepted and included them in family and community, and valued them.
These human beings, of course, have been non-disabled people and disabled people, some passing as abled, some not, in both groups.
Some of them, some of us, have managed hate and love in the same lives or even at the same time.
Over decades and hundreds of years and thousands of years the dial has turned slowly toward acceptance and love, and it turns more quickly now, we think. We hope. We strive for that, and we work toward it.
But still, we gather today to honor disabled people who have been killed because they are disabled now, not hundreds of years ago. Or thousands of years ago. Now.
We cry for the dead. We mourn them. We name them, when we can, and perhaps silently say a prayer, a blessing, even a thank you for their gracing this world.
Each tragedy we name is immeasurable in scale, but for all the tragedies we name, they are dwarfed in number and no less in scale by the ones unnamed.
So we also hold space—today and every day—for the disabled dead we do not and we cannot name, those whose disabilities and deaths in secret and in silence all around the world are unknown to us, who are lost by devaluation, contempt, and negligence or taken by discrimination, hate, and violence.
We come together today, and we come together year after year and say many of the same words with more names and more dead. We mourn the loss of more disabled lives.
To be sure that makes each life remembered no less precious, and the act of remembrance no less important.
But: we gathered in this space on this campus last year.
We gathered on the quad here the year before that.
We will gather here next year, and then we will gather again, the year after that.
Will we still be coming together to recognize the disabled dead, murdered by family and caregivers, in 5 years? In 10? In 20?
Who among us thinks we won’t?
At a time when the concept of disability rights is becoming better known, what are our responsibilities and obligations, and what is our vision?
The movement for disability rights—for rights and acceptance and awareness and accessibility—continues to grow, and some change does happen, and much does not.
What does this ask of us, require of us? There are so many injustices societies continue to address inadequately, differences people are penalized or killed for—the things we talk about when addressing issues like racial discrimination, ethnic divisions, immigrant rights, gender identity and sexual preferences innate or chosen, religious persecution, lookism, ageism, and of course poverty.
It makes sense and it is necessary that we focus on disability today and affirm the value of disabled life and lives and remember those specific disabled people killed and lost who we can name and those we can’t specify or name. They are all important, named and unnamed, and nothing is more important. We recognize their lives and, in reading each name, we name also the crime, the injustice, and the injury to all humanity.
Doing so tells living disabled people, also, that if they feel alone, isolated and vulnerable, that if they were to lose their lives or be killed, they won’t be forgotten. That matters, too.
We have to remember them before their names are on the list, of course, so disabled people don’t have to be murdered to be remembered.
So our vision includes that essentially, and it transcends it, as well.
The vision is to improve education for all, to take action for outreach, to improve legal safeguards, to intervene when disabled people and other vulnerable populations are being targeted, to sacrifice, and to vote. The work is to build bridges and spread understanding. The work is to teach awareness and acceptance, but even more fundamentally empathy and lovingkindness.
The work is to challenge and lift up society—individuals and institutions—in broad and specific ways. And supporting true change in society always starts with challenging and lifting up ourselves, in broad and specific ways, too, raising our own awareness, acceptance, empathy, and lovingkindness.
The vision asks for a community and a campus—a state, a nation, and a world—where all the vulnerable, of course including the disabled, are valued as sacred and precious aspects of the human collective, where we transcend us versus them narratives and realities, and we reach out to educate and embrace all our human family.
This vision changes a narrative that has been true throughout the entirety of human history, a narrative that has always devalued disabled lives and fostered division. The narrative we proclaim, the holistic vision we hold, must replace it and change it. We must change it, bettering ourselves and our world.
That is our responsibility and our sacred calling, what honors best the lives—and deaths—of each person whose name we are saying aloud today and who we are remembering in our words, whispers, and silences.
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