Coverage: Ruderman Report on Media and Filicide

Two stories this week on the Ruderman Family Foundation report on the media coverage of filicide of disabled people. The report, for which I was the lead author, found:

Approximately once a week, a person with a disability is murdered by a family member or caregiver. We have found that when these murders are covered, they are often called “mercy killings” which perpetuates the stigma and myth that the life of a person with a disability is not worth living and that it is a kind deed to end such a life. Such coverage simply must stop. It is dehumanizing and dangerously continues to stigmatize disability. We’ve found that the voices of the victims are nearly always erased to favor the perspectives of the perpetrators. This too must stop.

A disabled person is killed by their caregiver at least once a week. There are patterns in these cases. There are patterns in how we talk about them.

David Lohr, senior crime reporter for Huffington Post wrote “How Murder Victims with Disabilities get Blamed for their own Deaths.” He did his own reporting on the Alex Spourdalakis case (a Chicagoland murder, with which we also lead the white paper) and framed the findings this way:

The study found that taking a life ― something typically not tolerated in society ― is sometimes treated as acceptable in the justice system when the victim had a disability. Killers are commonly portrayed as angelic caretakers who killed out of mercy, or who could no longer bear the burden and snapped. Those perpetrators often face less than vigorous prosecution, the study found.

“The message is that murder is a reasonable response to disability, and courts will treat you lightly if you murder a disabled child, parent or spouse,” David Perry, a disability rights activist and author of the Ruderman report, told The Huffington Post.

Vilissa Thompson, an advocate and licensed master social worker from Winnsboro, South Carolina, said there is an obvious discrepancy in how the law and the public treat parents and caregivers accused of killing someone in their care.

“When someone, especially a child, is killed, it is called a hideous crime, and there is an urgency to punish the person responsible,” said Thompson, a contributor to the Ruderman report who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. “But when it comes to the disabled kids, there is this gross level of excusing that behavior.”

In Paste, Annamarya Scaccia summarized the report, then published a Q&A with me.

Paste: That was the one thing that stood out to me—that none of the reporters had any thought to contact a person with a disability.

Perry: It goes against basic journalistic practices. And I think it’s because most journalists don’t see disabled people as an identity group and the disability rights community as a group you would reach out to. Journalists are just not instinctively picking up the phone and calling the Autistic Self Advocacy Network or the Arc or United Cerebral Palsy or whoever it might be. That needs to become an instinct for journalists across the country.

This is one of the lines I keep repeating. Journalists know how to report. We are supposed to go to all sides for comments and framing, but when it comes to disability, that happens pretty rarely.

Grateful to these reporters for covering our study. More work ahead!

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