Blogging Against Disablism Day: Ableism and Abuse

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2010Trigger Warning for graphic descriptions of neglect and abuse against people with disabilities.

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, which takes place on May 1st of every year. At this blog, I tend to write an awful lot about different forms of violence and abuse against women. I’ve talked in the past about various ways that ableism intersects with violence against women, but I thought that today would be a good opportunity to revisit the issue.

Yesterday, I came across this really horrific story on a woman who was arrested for extreme neglect of her sister. Michelle Burnham was the caretaker for her older sister Patricia Rowe, who has a developmental disability. When police found her last week, Patricia was living under absolutely horrible conditions (again trigger warning):

A hungry 54-year-old woman, with the mental capacity of a toddler, was found lying on a bare mattress in a Portsmouth Avenue basement last week, covered from neck to knees in her own urine and feces. Patricia L. Rowe had been lying there for so long, police said, the mattress had the permanent imprint of her body.

Her sister, Michelle R. Burnham, 31, who owns the home on the 800 block of Portsmouth Avenue, was arrested Thursday and charged with felony abuse and neglect of an incapacitated adult.

According to police records, Burnham identified herself as the primary caretaker and the payee on her sister’s government checks.

“It’s not as bad as they’re making it out to be,” Burnham said just before her arrest Thursday, standing on the front porch of her small, dilapidated white house.

At least six adults, four children and half a dozen dogs live there. Burnham said that she’s been her sister’s caretaker since their mother passed away in 2001.

Rowe, who was emaciated, was taken to the hospital, where she stayed for two days before being released into the care of a brother in Bluff City, Tenn.

She was covered in bug bites and a rash, which police suspect were caused by general poor hygiene and lying in urine-drenched clothing.

It’s certainly true that caretaking can be a lot of work, and more accessible, affordable support services are desperately needed. This, however, does not in any way seem to be a situation where a caretaker was struggling to keep up and let a few things go. This clearly presents as a case of extreme neglect. There is absolutely no excuse for leaving a person starving, alone, and covered in their own bodily fluids for weeks or more on end. That is not okay. That is abuse.

As I’ve expressed many times in the past, abuse is normally committed when perpetrators do not see their victims as fully human. And perpetrators generally base a large portion of their determinations about who is and is not fully human on cultural messages about which people and lives are worth the most, and which people and lives society cares about. In this case, that determination was almost certainly based hugely on ableist narratives.

When people with disabilities are seen as not fully human, it’s easy to stick them in a back room and forget about them, as was done with Rowe. When humanness and inherent worth are assigned usually and exclusively to those perceived as intelligent and those who are able to communicate by conventional means, it can be easy to let people with developmental disabilities go hungry, to isolate them from society, and to ignore basic health and hygiene. And when one is taught that people with disabilities don’t really count, it’s easy to assume that no one will notice or care about abuse committed against them. Just like when women are seen as less human than men and lacking in real bodily autonomy, it’s easy to beat and rape them. (And the fact that Rowe is a woman quite possibly also played a role in the decision to neglect and abuse her.)

When ableist notions about who is worthy of love, care, and even basic decency and human rights reign supreme, it’s also easy to excuse and push aside abuse. This comment from a neighbor struck me as particularly familiar:

Pam Helbert, a neighbor, said she watched as police took the woman from the basement and loaded her into an ambulance.

“It ain’t newspaper-business bad,” she said. “They hadn’t changed her diaper. OK. So she had a pissy diaper. That’s it. It was not that bad, for sure.”

How many connections are there here to the victim-blaming and minimizing tropes so commonly used against rape victims and victims of intimate partner violence? How many parallels to the dismissive and harmful “So she got drunk and there was a misunderstanding — this isn’t worth ruining a young man’s life over”? How many similarities to the minimizing “They had a lover’s quarrel and things got out of hand. Why get the police involved in a private matter”? How many shades of “Fine, he was wrong, but it’s not like this is rape-rape”?

Victim-blaming quite frequently upholds different forms of oppression, and uses different kinds of prejudice to make its case. But the intent is the same: to support perpetrators of abuse by discrediting and devaluing the lives, experiences, and personhood of victims. And the effect is also the same: a world in which violence against marginalized bodies is deemed acceptable, and where an alleged perpetrator’s version of things is always valued over the word and worth of those who have been abused.

Until we eradicate notions about which people are most “normal,” superior, and deserving of the right to partake in society, violence-free lives are not going to be a reality for those who are currently most vulnerable. Ending violence involves more than talking about the right to be free of violence; sadly, it also involves convincing people that this right is one that marginalized folks actually deserve. Abuse is about power, and abled privilege is one of the many forms of power that abuse is used to enforce.

0 thoughts on “Blogging Against Disablism Day: Ableism and Abuse

  1. Anna

    This is such a painful post to read, Cara. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to write.

    The neighbour’s comments struck me as well. Last year, IIRC, there was an MP here in Canada who figured he’d “better understand” what it was like for patients being abused in long-term care centers by spending a day in an adult diaper. Because that would help him understand months of abuse, infected bedsores requiring lengthy surgeries, and being threatened with death if you spoke out against it.

  2. Astrid

    This is such a horrible story, and the neighbor’s comments are so ridden with ableism it’s unbelievable.

    @ Anna: oh, privilege! That MP really doesn’t have a clue how privileged he is and how spending a day in adult diapers is nothing like living life as a disabled person in long-term care.

  3. seahorse

    A powerful and well-written piece that hits the nail on the head regarding both abuse and ablism. And as for that MP…I call it disability tourism. And no, it doesn’t ever do any good at all.

  4. Kitty

    Great post, though I would argue that it doesn’t even matter if someone is seen as fully human for abuse to still be abuse. After all, animal abuse is still cruel and illegal. I’m not saying this case is comparable to animal abuse or that the victim was anything less than human. Seeing victims as more human certainly helps prevent abuse. However, the victim’s sister, at the very least, should for acknowledged that the victim is a living, feeling being and that no one human or animal should be starved and neglected like that. Even if the abuser saw her disable sister as being no more intelligent or human than her dogs, unless she’s been neglecting her pets too, she should have at least made the connection that her sister deserves food and basic care too. If she thought her own sister’s life was worth less than that of her dogs than she is a disappointment to the human race indeed.

  5. NTE

    A painful and powerful post, for sure. You really managed to make some very important points about what society values and how it can endanger the very lives of so many people (who are thought to be less than normal).


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