People with disabilities: our seething prejudice

Janet and Jeffrey Collins in wheelchairs

Jeffrey and Janet Collins

Annette Corriveau wants to kill her children. And she wants to do it legally.

Janet and Jeffrey Collins have Sanfilippo Syndrome, a heartbreaking metabolic disorder that causes loss of motor ability and severe developmental disability.

The siblings were apparently normal babies and toddlers. But, says Corriveau, the “terrible twos” lasted too long. By age four the children started losing motor and language skills. They were eventually diagnosed with Sanfilippo Syndrome, and, at ages eight and seven, were institutionalized.

Later, they were confined to wheelchairs. As they continued to lose motor skills, they began to have trouble swallowing. Then they started choking. Jeffrey had a feeding tube placed when he was 25.

My grandson uses a feeding tube: They’re not much more complicated than a baby bottle. But that’s what pushed Corriveau, who had been through so much already, over the edge. In Taking Mercy, a documentary that aired last month on Canadian television, she says that’s when she first thought about killing her children:

If God wanted them to live past adulthood, then the tubes wouldn’t have been needed. The tubes are allowing them to exist. Without the tubes, they wouldn’t be here. This is no life.

Janet got a feeding tube five years ago, at age 38.

At first Corriveau visited her children once a week. But it was just too hard, she says. Now she visits them once every two months. The siblings, now 43 and 42, have not left their care facility in 20 years.

Appearing last week on the Dr. Phil Show, Corriveau said she wants the legal right to kill Janet and Jeffrey by lethal injection. Dr. Phil called it an act of mercy, and the overwhelming majority of the audience agreed with him.

The Canadian documentary, the American television show, and the plight of Janet and Jeffrey Collins have sparked outrage from people with disabilities. Mark Pickup is chronically ill and disabled with degenerative multiple sclerosis. He writes, in a blog post entitled, “Canada’s Seething Prejudice Against the Disabled”:

Corriveau says they wouldn’t like to live the way they are. Of course they wouldn’t. I don’t want to live triplegic and electric wheelchair dependent from MS — but that doesn’t mean I am better off dead.

Ethicists from the Council of Canadians with Disabilities also responded to the documentary and its accompanying media blog:

Your media blog “Taking Mercy” (March 16, 2012) has left many Canadians in a state of shock. The entire program was filled with misinformation, fear, and stigma. . . . When we hear ourselves categorized as suffering and having lives that are only worthy of death, we are reminded how segments of our society – represented by the panelists you had on your blog – don’t think we belong. . . . Some of us may not be able to speak or walk or hear or see, but that doesn’t mean we don’t belong. Even if we experience pain or need help going to the bathroom, we are still Canadians, we are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and no one has the right to kill us.

Your blog refused to acknowledge that we are so much more than the sum of our disabilities. Murdering us is not a compassionate or reasonable choice. . . .

We don’t understand how you could frame the justification for murdering persons with disabilities using a term like “mercy.” Our existence should not be dependent on someone else’s subjective measurement of our worthiness. When you reduce the powerful and purposeful lives of persons with disabilities by using trite comments likening our existence to that of pets, plants, mere burdens or simplified stereotypes, you portray us as subhuman and suffering.

Where were the voices of citizens living with significant disabilities? Where were the voices of family members and advocates who see accommodation and inclusion as appropriate responses to supporting persons with disabilities? Your blog shut us out. In what other instance where issues of marginalized groups are discussed, be they First Nations persons, women, newcomers or whomever, do you go forward with a panel discussion that doesn’t include anyone from that group?

We are challenging Global, in the name of journalistic balance, to stage a follow-up episode featuring persons with disabilities who want to live and who see a danger in opening up the debate on euthanasia. Only good can come from providing an opportunity for a broader, fairer public discourse.

Is it worth five minutes to speak out in solidarity with people with disabilities? If so, email Global News Canada’s health specialist, jennifer.tryon@globalnational.com. Tell her that killing people with disabilities is not a compassionate choice, and ask for a follow-up show featuring people with disabilities who want to live.

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2 thoughts on “People with disabilities: our seething prejudice

  1. This story just breaks my heart. I am the daughter of a woman who was severely disabled by MS and spent the last 10 years of her life bedridden. Towards the end of her life, she was unable to speak and could barely move yet she had a rich social life at her adult family home and was cherished by those who interacted with her. She had a quality of life. Maybe not what the able bodied would judge a worthy quality, but she had dignity, she loved and was loved. My world was richer because of her.
    Compassion, people. We are all God’s children. All of us.

    • She loved and was loved: Everything else is secondary. Thank you for sharing your mom with us, Monique.

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