True Dignity is privileged to share this excellent, heartfelt piece written by Meghan Schrader, part time resident of Waitsfield, Vermont:
I would like to express my disillusionment with the Democratic representation in Vermont and elsewhere of disabled people like me.
For years, Democrats have been leaders in civil rights movements such as women’s rights, racial equity and LGBT liberation. Yet, when it comes to the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, the most ostensibly progressive Democrats have functionally ignored the uniform opposition of disability rights groups across America. American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the National Council for Independent Living, the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living, the United Spinal Cord Injury Association, the Association of Retarded Citizens, The World Council on Disability, and the National Council on Disability all oppose assisted suicide. These organizations lead our community in establishing civil rights and carrying our communal concerns to legislators. They are to our community what NOW, the NAACP, and GLAAD are to the women’s, persons of color, and LGBT communities.
Yet, Compassion and Choices, the ACLU, able-bodied progressive legislators and the few disabled individuals who say they support PAS, have been taken as representing the “voice of reason” in this debate. Indeed, Compassion and Choices has even taken to funding Astroturf groups that include people who happen to have disabilities, and then writing press releases referring to them as “key disability rights leaders.”
The fact is that such organizations tend to be run by people who are not disabled, do not live our daily reality, and yet falsely claim to know more about ableism’s impact on assisted suicide than our community does. They cannot speak to how the practice of assisted suicide relates to what we experience as hateful cultural constructions of disability.
During childhood, I was always taught that validating suicide on the basis of identity or circumstances was so hateful as to be beyond the pale of discussion. Yet, in adulthood, I’ve found that this rule does not apply to disability, and that people with disabilities have limited voice in such matters. In the adult world, disability is not an identity, nor is our community empowered to claim it as such.
By legalizing assisted suicide and continuing to make a show of tinkering with what meager restrictions may or may not remain in the law, Vermont is setting an unwelcome precedent of a new kind of discrimination. The socio-economically privileged people who were allowed to testify at the recent hearings on S.108 in Vermont extolled the benefits of the law for them and their family members who chose not to become disabled and “lose their autonomy” in the course of a terminal illness. And some of those who did testify about how Act 39 stands to impact the disabled community were cut off in such a way that it seemed that the legislative process was being manipulated in favor of assisted suicide supporters.
If the law has so much support in the legislature, then why block people in the disabled community from testifying? I believe that Sen. Ayers’ statement in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that she doesn’t “want to tie up the legislature’s time” with such statements also reflects her privilege. She and people like her will never be harmed by the mechanisms of that law, and she and other legislators are employing their power to silence those of us who may be.
It angers me that so many legislators are willing to overlook the inconsistency in Compassion and Choices’ statements. They say they only want to legalize assisted suicide for terminal illnesses, but C&C has publicly expressed approval of laws that go far beyond that boundary. As I wrote in the testimony that I was not allowed to give before the Human Services Committee, I do not believe that there is any logical difference between the suffering and familial burden posed by diseases like major depression, or simple neurological differences like autism that necessitate familial support, and the suffering that occurs at the end of life. There is ample evidence to indicate that right-to-die advocates, such as those associated with Compassion and Choices, actually support euthanasia and believe assisted suicide should not be restricted to those who are dying. For instance, Compassion and Choices and the Death with Dignity National Center have both expressed excitement over a recent Canadian court decision that legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia for anyone with a “terminal illness, disease or disability who finds their condition intolerable with respect to their circumstances.” That means that if I move to Canada, I can kill myself with the help of a doctor, and I don’t even have to tell my family. (I feel that euphemisms such as “end my life” are inappropriate given the magnitude of this matter.) Justice demands that I be entitled to the same suicide prevention as anyone else, and the fact that the Canadian law doesn’t recognize this makes me angry. The passage of Act 39 was significantly influenced by legislators who didn’t want any restrictions on the law at all, suggesting that disabled individuals have ample reason to be concerned that the law will expand as it has in Canada, and that there won’t be anything that our leaders can do about it because the expansion will be protected by powerful legislators who want to protect a privileged conception of “choice.”
Recently I stood outside the Whitehouse for over four hours with ADAPT, which was asking that the US Secretary of Health and Human Services come speak to us about the Community Integration Act and the President’s lack of active participation in disability rights liberation. For the last twenty-five years, disability activists have been fighting for funding so that they can hire Personal Care Attendants to perform nursing home-related tasks in our homes. As the issue has fallen into the doldrums of underfunding, lack of advocacy, and conflicts of interest between the state and individual rights, disabled people have died in nursing homes under abhorrent conditions, with no choice in the matter.
That day, no one came to speak to us. The U.S. is close to saying that we cannot choose where we live, but instead, we can choose to die.