I returned home from Germany to find this story (the letter above) in my email box. How ironic. I had lived in Germany 26 years ago for school, and spent much of this trip marveling at the new Jewish museums, memorials and many new races living in Germany that did not do so to this extent when I lived there. Still, I didn’t get the sense that in cities such as Berlin, for instance, that these museums of hopefully-never-forgetting insures the security and citizenship rights for Jewish citizens or citizens of other races or disabilities. Work goes into protecting rights; they are not, sadly, given, and often impermanent. Therefore, there is work to be done.
During my trip, I brought my portable Hanna Arendt. I am thinking specifically of her essay, The Perplexities on the Rights of Man where she discusses inalienable rights and The Rights of Man which proved to be unenforcable: “The calamity of the rightless is not that the are deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law, but that no law exists for them…” She goes on to say how having a country was important for the Jewish people because without one, they were not considered people at all. Of course, we can’t produce a country for disabled people in order to obtain citizenship – it’s a silly thought if not a dangerous one; Arendt protests the classless citizen – one without rights – by arguing that the prisoner, at least, has a citizenship status; the Jews on the other hand, much like disabled people, have been targets for complete erasure from society. Similarly today, my concern is that autistic people continue to be status-less.
“The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer matter of choice, or when one is place in a situation where, unless he commits a crime, his treatment by others does not depend on what he does or does not do. This extremity, and nothing else, is the situation of people deprived of human rights” (Arendt, 2000, 37).
I conflate these situations – the disabled and citizenship status – with the recent story of this hate letter sent to the Begley family regarding their son Max playing in their yard. Waking at 4 a.m. this morning from Europe, I turned on CBC news to hear that this letter is not considered a hate crime (the other report suggests it is still under investigation at the time of this writing), and I thought that we must, as a community, ask just when, then, does a hate crime occur? Does it take more than one letter? Hundreds? Physical violence? Institutionalization? Calls for euthanization? Would this be in question if this letter was written about other “acceptable” diversities such as race, gender or sexuality? Why might we even have to accept this letter, regarding an autistic child, as escaping the category of harmful crime when it threatens, if not illustrates, many ignorances about autism? Why must we live – as autistic people and the families who love them – as second class citizens, or, as Arendt would probably argue, non-citizens? Are we not allowed, as this letter suggests, to go out and play, go shopping, be with others?
In Ontario, the disabled have the mechanisms under The Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Charter’s Section 15 for the rights of people with disabilities (although another discussion, I posit these Canadian instruments for reference purposes, not for the issues inherent in enforcing these codes or issues I have with the OHRC process). In 1976, the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation released the landmark statement that provided the beginnings of the social model of disability; “disability is a situation caused by social conditions…[d]isability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society (UPIAS, 14). While we have these new mechanisms that can be enforced, we know that until autism is understood in social terms, as a human rights issue, and not only governed by etiological interests that often occlude autistic personhood, enforcing autistic rights and cultivating understanding will encounter further discussions of citizenship, that merge with notions of capacity, various models of disability, and more.
For the purposes of this post, it is important, I think, to stick with a fundamental concern I have which is the right for autistic people and their families to live and thrive in their communities, to go to school, to have support, and be accepted as they are and to live a life without arbitrary labeling, diagnosis, testing buttressed by ignorance and the ignoring of a person’s right to live in society with their disability – to live free from harmful words and threat. As for the Begley’s and our families, we must not cave in to the violent words produced by their neighbour, but to protest against them in order that we too may partake in the fruits of life, to contribute to them, to be allowed to roam free with our whoops and flaps and delight in the lives of our children, and them in ours. For when these fundamental human necessities for life and well-being are threatened, particularly considering the tenuous status of the autistic human subject, we might consider this letter in and of itself the words of a hate crime – for words are the foundations upon which further human atrocities are built.
To add, CBC also posted an essay, What is a Hate Crime? which highlights section 319 of the Criminal Code: “The Criminal Code of Canada says a hate crime is committed to intimidate, harm or terrify not only a person, but an entire group of people to which the victim belongs. The victims are targeted for who they are, not because of anything they have done…It is illegal to communicate hatred in a public place by telephone, broadcast or through other audio or visual means. The same section protects people from being charged with a hate crime if their statements are truthful or the expression of a religious opinion.” I would think that we should all take up this as a threat to the entire autism community.
So let’s ask the key question again and I challenge our autism societies to take this up – when does a letter become a hate crime? Or, why is considered not to be a hate crime – perhaps this question is more revealing in how we regard autism and autistic people, and that society-at-large considers autistics, non-persons. Therefore, how can we protect the future of our children and autistic adults living in society? As for me, I write this open letter/post in support of any legal action they pursue against the author of this letter.
Arendt, Hanna. (2000). The Portable Hanna Arendt. Peter Baehr (Ed.) Penguin Books.