Hundreds of people with disabilities are killed by their caregivers every year and yet, we are rarely exposed to those tragic stories in the media. Jay is joined by David Perry, a senior academic advisor to the Department of History at the University of Minnesota and disability-rights reporter, to discuss the facts and the concerning lack of media exposure on this issue.
David Perry is a historian and journalist. He’s the Senior Academic Advisor to the History Department at the University of Minnesota. He’s a columnist at Pacific Standard Magazine with bylines at outlets such as The Washington Post, The Nation, and CNN. He’s the father of a boy with Down syndrome and writes openly about his own mental and learning disabilities.
Jay Ruderman: What if I told you that each week in America, a person is murdered in cold blood? What if I told you the murders are barely covered by the media? What if I told you that when covered, the media, general public and the law consistently makes excuses for these murders?
Announcer: All Inclusive. A podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Welcome to All Inclusive. I’m your host, Jay Ruderman, and on today’s show, we’ll address why the media, court system and the general public ignores the fact that approximately once a week, a person with a disability is murdered by their caregiver. Joining me for this discussion is the author of our recent white paper on this very subject, David Perry, who authored the Ruderman white paper on Media Coverage of the Murder of People with Disabilities by Their Caregivers. David is a senior academic advisor to the Department of History at the University of Minnesota. He is a widely distributed reporter covering disability rights at outlets like CNN, the Atlantic, the Washington Post and the Pacific Standard.
Jay Ruderman: He joined the Ruderman Family Foundation writing this alarming white paper and has been following this issue closely. David, thank you for joining us here today.
David Perry: Thank you so much for having me on.
Jay Ruderman: Let me ask you the first elephant in the room question. If this is such a widespread problem in America, if there’s so many people with disabilities that are being murdered by their caregivers, why is this given scant coverage by the media?
David Perry: I think there are two real answers to that and one of them is big and about bias about disability and not understanding disability as connecting, so in one case, the victim has autism and is a child. In another case, the victim could be elderly with any number of health conditions. In yet another case, it could be an adult who is still murdered by their caregiver, maybe even their parent. Maybe with cerebral palsy, maybe with physical disabilities. If you see disability as a collection of medical diagnoses, it’s easy for a reporter to not connect these stories and see them as part of a pattern. That’s obviously not how the Ruderman Family Foundation approaches disability or how the disability rights community approaches disability where we talk about identity, where we talk about connection. We talk about inclusion where these stories clearly come together.
David Perry: So that’s one problem is fundamental misunderstandings in the media about what disability is. The second problem, though, is that when these stories happen, the focus immediately, in almost every case, shifts towards hardship and empathy with the parents, empathy with the killers. It is horrific when a parent kills their child and the first question the media likes to answer is, “What could have driven them to this?” And that takes the reporter into a pathway to talk about hardship and pressure and stress and lack of support rather than really looking at the victim. So I think those two factors are what pulls each of these stories in their own direction rather than seeing this as a consistent national problem or even an international problem.
Jay Ruderman: So I experienced this a little bit different way, but my dad was sick with a disease called Alpha-1 antitrypsin for many, many years and it’s a disease that attacks the lungs and the liver and as time went on, he became more and more incapacitated and then he passed away and we were all very upset and it was traumatic, but there was also a sense of like, okay, well, the burden is now lifted on my mother. What factor does that play where people are identifying with the survivors and saying, “Well, they had to care for someone that was really not going to have much of a life. Maybe things are better off this way.” Do you think there’s a sense, in society, that that feeling exists?
David Perry: I do think so, but again, I think that when we start to dig into these stories, often it turns out that there’s enormous value in lives that don’t look like what we imagine a typical life to be, so that when you talk to people with cerebral palsy or when you talk to people with autism, they don’t say, “My life is a misery.” You know, my son is nonverbal, he has Down syndrome. When we communicate with him, you have to do a different kind of work to communicate with him, but it’s clear that there is immense joy in his life and in my life. There’s a whole … This will take us into a different topic, but there’s a whole conversation around assisted suicide and who gets advised, “Well your life is meaningless now,” and who gets lots of resources to support them as long as possible.
David Perry: These are difficult and important conversations about disability and value in life and we should absolutely have them, but in the context of murder, when we start to look at these stories, it’s pretty clear that we’re too quick to jump on this narrative of burden. We’re too quick to identify it with terminal illness. Autism is not a terminal condition. Cerebral palsy is not a terminal condition. Old age on itself is not a terminal condition and so we have to be very careful about that.
David Perry: Just as an example, the first story that I got involved with covering was the horrific murder of London McCabe, a young boy, autistic, whose mother threw him off the bridge in, I think 2014, in Oregon. Immediately the story was about, oh, that, that must have been such a burden on her. You know, how could a mother do this? She must have been terrible. But when you actually read about London McCabe, he liked to play with hats. He liked stuffed animals. He liked watching his parents kiss. There was a whole sort of narrative of him as a real, whole person, and that to me, as a journalist myself and also as a parent, I wanted to make sure we’re telling those stories. I want to make sure that we start by saying whatever was going on in the murderer’s head, and you know, we need to get there and the court system needs to get there, but we have to start by telling the story as best as we can of the victim themselves and not just erase them from their own narrative.
Jay Ruderman: Let’s back up for a second. What are the main findings? How are the police, the law enforcement authorities, the court system, handling these murders? Are they looking at them like a murder that’s a premeditated murder or are they looking at it as a sympathy killing?
David Perry: They’re much more likely to go into it with the assumption, in a disability case, that there’s sort of a justifiable explanation. And that doesn’t mean that they just say, “Oh, you killed your child. Go back home.” There is a court process it goes through, but people are likely to serve less time. They’re likely to be treated with sympathy by reporters, by police, by judges, by juries. Defense lawyers, I mean, their job is to represent their client in the best way possible and so defense lawyers immediately go for this kind of narrative. But journalists, it is not the job to simply regurgitate what defense lawyers tell them. Journalists have to dig in and every defense lawyer says exculpatory things about their client.
David Perry: A journalist is not supposed to do that, but often it’s very striking when you read the court transcripts or when you read reporting on these cases such as there was a Chicago killing of Alex Spourdalakis, autistic teenager. The defense lawyers and the prosecutors are kind of saying the same thing. “Oh, well, this must have been really hard on the mother,” on the killer, rather than starting from the idea that Alex Spourdalakis had a life and his life had value and whatever happens after that, whether it involves long prison terms or whether it involves treatment or any number of other kinds of ways in which any given case might play out, we have to start from the assumption that the victim’s life had value. That’s just not happening in the courts.
David Perry: I’m a journalist, so I’m not a criminologist and I do think one of my calls is for more criminologists to do kind of systematic study of these cases, but as a journalist I can just say I am not seeing journalists connect one killing to another to say there’s a pattern and I’m not seeing journalists talk to anyone who is disabled or even anyone who is not disabled, but somehow has expertise in disability issues. We just don’t see those kinds of voices put into these stories and that, to me, is just a basic kind of journalism 101 thing that we can and must fix.
Jay Ruderman: Right. So it seems like the overall statistic is pretty alarming. That every week in America, there is a person with disabilities get killed by their caretaker, but if I juxtapose this to a recent white paper that the Foundation did that came out with the statistics that first responders, police and fire fighters, EMTs, that they’re more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty and that caught like wildfire and the media picked it up all over the country. Now, maybe there’s a difference between the identification that society has with first responders than they do with people with disabilities who are in the care of their loved ones, but just help me delve into this and why is this not catching on with journalists or law enforcement, why are they not seeing the trend here even though it’s been put to them very straightforward in the white paper?
David Perry: Most journalists are only going to cover one or two of these stories in their career and this is something that I think often the disability community is not sort of thinking about professional journalism issues, but these stories get covered by crime reporters in local communities. So they have certain kinds of ways in which they’ve been trained in the way that they cover these cases. They’re mostly going to cover one or two of them a year and they have not come into it, and this goes back to my first point about how we as a society understand disability. They do not come into these cases thinking of disabled people as an identity, as a constituency, as people who have voice, who talk for themselves instead of being talked over.
David Perry: If there’s a string of murders in a community of color or if there’s a string of murders, I was recently in Toronto, where there was a string of murders in the LGBT community in Toronto. A reporter is going to have the idea right from the beginning, “Oh, I should speak to community leaders and get their perspective on this.” Again, not as the only voice, but as a voice in the story, and that’s just not happening with disability. It really speaks to a fundamental issue in how journalists are or really are not trained to think about disability in their story. Every journalist in every beat might encounter disability somewhere along the way. So this points me towards kind of core issues of journalistic training that then become really crucial when we deal with what is literally a life and death story.
Jay Ruderman: Not so long ago, people with disabilities were institutionalized and segregated into separate housing and schooling and different workforces where they were being paid subminimum wage. Does all of that shape a society’s view of how people with disabilities should be, quote unquote, cared for as opposed to their right to be a full fledged member of society even though there are obvious visible differences? And I mean, I’m talking a big sort of stigma related question that I’m sure you’ve struggled with in terms of all of your reporting, but does it add up? Sometimes it feels like it’s not.
David Perry: Yeah. I mean, I’m also a historian, as you know, and I do think that everything in our kind of dominant culture pushes towards the objectification of people with disabilities in different ways. Whether it’s because of physical differences or like my son, because he doesn’t speak in typical ways, although he sure does communicate a lot in a lot of different ways or whether it’s because of people who have different kinds of mental illnesses as I’m recently discovering about my own brain and have been sort of closeted from, even from myself for a long time, because we’re worried about stigma. Everything in society pushes us as a dominant culture, to objectify. Sometimes very kindly, “Aw, he’s so cute, he’s so sweet,” even though it’s a 35 year old man with Down syndrome treated like a child, or sometimes very cruelly, through institutionalization or eugenics or violence or incarceration, but everything pushes us to focus on the caregiver rather than the person with disability themselves.
David Perry: Certainly in these murders, we see that constantly. The perspective shifts at once to the killer rather than to what we know about the victim.
Jay Ruderman: Your focus on this white paper and much of your other work has been on journalists and educating other journalists about reporting on disability. Maybe you could just talk for a second about what type of success you’ve found in that. How do you reach out to other journalists? How do you impact them? Are they paying attention to what you’re putting out there? What are your thoughts?
David Perry: I think we are in a great moment in the shift in terms of journalism and awareness of disability as identity. I certainly don’t take any credit for that, but I have observed it. I know you recently did a podcast on the straw ban and I think that was a great example of a place where the disability community surged forward and demanded to be part of this conversation and rapidly had pieces published by disabled folks across the media landscape. I’ve been publishing on it for a couple of years, but as this surge took over, I just stepped back and started sharing pieces, because I was so happy to see what was happening.
David Perry: I think that editors are increasingly aware that there are lots and lots of amazing disabled writers out there and are going to them to talk about these disability issues and so I’m very happy about that. I can tell you that when I talk to journalism students about disability, writing issues, they are very receptive to the message. I get almost no pushback when I say, “Hey, if you’re talking about a story about disability, because you’re a sports broadcaster or a weather broadcaster or a holiday feature broadcaster, whatever, maybe you should talk to disabled people if you’re writing about disability.” They say, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” That’s journalism 101.
David Perry: If I say don’t assume that people don’t have a voice just because they don’t talk in the way that you talk, they say, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense. I’m excited to hear that.” But someone has to tell them that message. Someone has to tell them that message in undergraduate and graduate journalism classes across the country and that effort hasn’t really started yet.
Jay Ruderman: Let’s get back to the subject matter of the white paper, about caregiver murders and now that we’re a year plus from the publication of the paper, has there been any progress made? And what’s the answer? How do we make progress on this issue and how do we get something that is really endemic in our country to really get more coverage and more sensitivity by the general public?
David Perry: I do think there has been some progress that’s been made. Often the first reporting on cases still continues to follow the old tropes, but then as the second day story or the second week story follows, I certainly get a reasonable number of queries from other reporters. I tend to refer them to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. They have a great media team and they’re the voices that I want to see, but I see people reaching out for me. I track these stories very carefully and I see things getting better. I just was part of a big process in Australia where there was a mass murder. There was a terrible situation, which again, kind of the first coverage of the reporting followed the same pattern, but then the national media, the ABC, their Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said, “Wait a minute, we have to do better,” and again, they reached out to Australian disability advocates, Disabled Australians, and then also to me to sort of try to talk about this case and to put it in context and to do that kind of context work.
David Perry: That’s reassuring, not that these murders keep happening, that’s not reassuring, but that the coverage is better. We know something about how media around violence can cause contagion. Suicide contagion is very well documented that when a famous person commits suicide, more people kill themselves. We’re learning more and more, sadly, in this country about mass murder contagion where someone does a mass murder in a high school and other people think about doing that in their high school too.
David Perry: I think we have to be concerned about caregiver murder contagion. That when someone commits a murder and they get treated as a sympathetic victim rather than their victim as the victim, we know from court transcripts from other cases that other caregivers see those stories and think about them. So the stakes here are quite literally life and death and I’m glad we’re beginning to see a little bit of progress.
Jay Ruderman: Right. And thank you for your leadership and scholarship on this issue and your dedication to making it an issue and the Foundation’s partnership with you has been really important and impactful for us. I think you, David, for bringing such an important problem to the public’s attention and for joining me today. It’s important to mention that most caregivers do not kill people with disabilities, so I don’t want to throw all caregivers under the bus. That’s not the purpose of this broadcast or the white paper. If you would end with sort of a call to action, what would that be?
David Perry: I want every journalist who reports on anything related to disability, but especially in cases of violence, to talk to disabled leaders in their community as just a basic practice. In murder, in education, in everything. If you’re writing about disability, talk to your disabled leaders in your community.
Jay Ruderman: Good advice. Thank you, David Perry. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
David Perry: You too, Jay. Thanks a lot.
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