A Matter of Life and Death

In his opinion column, Russell Shaw tells us disabled folks to “get over” our “fear” of the right to die types. He writes:

“Could the real issue for some disability advocates be that ongoing life experiences have convinced you that able-bodied citizens feel you are “in the way,” and that right-to-die types have as the ultimate goal more tools to get you, our disabled brothers and sisters, “out of the way?” and goes on to state that he sees our stance as a bit paranoid.

I’m glad you asked that question, Russell. Too bad you went ahead and tried to answer it before talking to any disability advocates. But let’s talk about the real reasons why people with disabilities say they want to die and then let’s take a look at if they really want to die – or live. This is the distinction that many who use the “p” word don’t “get”.

Over the years I’ve worked with many people with disabilities who tell me they want to die. There’s no doubt that these cases have one thing in common: they did not want to die because they were in physical pain or facing a terminal illness. They wanted to die because they did not have the means and resources to have a manageable life. Some wanted to die because they were newly disabled and were going through depression. Others feared being a burden to relatives. Some lost all of their money and were unable to work and find a job.

Some of the disabled people who approach me who say they want to die tell me that they have no quality of life. Simple things like having meals on the table are a problem. They may survive by eating bags of potato chips. It’s a John Smith type of existence: if you can’t cook or prepare a meal and there’s no one to do it for you, you don’t eat. Or they may go without showers for weeks at a time. One woman I know doesn’t get her laundry done for months on end. There is a shortage of both funding and availability of home health aides so many people with disabilities live like this. It’s behind closed doors.

Even though this is a reason why people with disabilities want to die, some people respond by saying that if you “can’t manage by yourself, you should go into a nursing home.” . That’s even worse. It’s a loss of autonomy and freedom. To many disabled people, it’s the line that is crossed when suicide becomes the choice and they tell me “If that ever happens to me, I don’t want to live.”

Then we have people who say they want to die because they cannot get out of their homes because there have been In Home medical equipment restrictions or they can’t afford medical equipment. Their wheelchair breaks and they can’t get another one so they are immobile. This leads to depression. Perhaps their caregiver is an aging parent who can no longer care for them – or dies. All of these changes make disabled peoples’ lives unmanageable and can make suicide look like a way out.

People with disabilities are far more vulnerable to right to die laws because they can be talked into suicide under the guise of compassionate care (or whatever politically correct term du jour is being used). Here’s where we get into the supposed paranoid part – whether anyone wants to admit it or not, due to the cost of care it is cheaper and far easier to talk a person with a long term disability into legal suicide . “Sign here- and all those logistical problems go away.”

What needs to be understood is that what these people with disabilities who ask to die are looking for are the resources so they can live. We need a right to live movement, not a right to die movement. We need to solve this myriad of social problems, not provide an “out” for a vulnerable population that can be used by them and – yes- manipulated by others.

I find it sad that people like Shaw use their public forum to ridicule disability advocates. But I’ll be the bigger person here and suggest that a dialogue is possible. We need to address the erroneous assumptions out there in the public forum about our stand on assisted suicide vis a vis people with disabilities.

It’s a matter of life and death.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan


Filed under essay

2 responses to “A Matter of Life and Death

  1. This was a really strong, important post. Thank you.

  2. Liz

    Thanks for writing this – really well said.

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