Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An Open Letter to Nancy Grace

Dear Nancy,

I am deeply disturbed by your gross ignorance and ableism on an episode of your show, which aired August 7th, 2012.  The episode in question examined the murder of 22 year old Gabriel Philby-Zetsche.  Philby, who had cerebral palsy, was found dead in the apartment he shared with his mother on July 30th, with stab and bludgeon wounds to his head, face, and chest.

On your show, you expressed surprise that Philby was not receiving any sort of government assistance.  First of all, it is extremely insulting that you automatically assumed that Philby could not work and “should have been receiving….[services] from the government”.  Most disabled people are fully capable of working.  Even disabled people who do not work are not necessarily on government benefits for a variety of reasons.  As anyone who has ever tried to apply for disability benefits knows, it is a drawn-out process, requiring access to health care, extensive documentation of disability, which not all people have the privilege of obtaining.  Furthermore, even if the application process is completed, the Social Security Administration’s definition of disability is complex, and many people do not get approved for benefits.  It is worth noting, as well, that disabled people face the same employment barriers as non-disabled people in the current economic climate.

You also questioned Philby’s “functioning level” and stated that because he was able to help his mother with the cleaning and do other domestic tasks, he was not a “burden” on her.  This seems to suggest that more severely disabled people are burdens on their parents or caregivers, and therefore their murders are somehow justified.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, this blog post by Autistic activist Neurodivergent K includes a (very) incomplete list of disabled people murdered by family or caregivers.  In all of these cases, comments were made trying to justify the murderer’s actions, citing the “difficulty” in caring for a disabled child and what “burdens” they must have been, as if a disabled person is no more than a heavy package, a weight on someone else’s shoulders.  You would never claim that nondisabled children are burdens on their parents.  Why, then, does the addition of a disability suddenly make them burdens and less worthy of love and care?

Finally, I am troubled by your choice of language.  Throughout the episode, you repeatedly referred to Philby as “suffering from” and “a victim of” cerebral palsy.  These are phrases designed to evoke sympathy and pity, things that disabled people neither want nor need.  I do not pity Philby because he was disabled.  I pity him because he had a life that was cruelly cut short.  An acceptable alternative would be to simply say that he “had cerebral palsy”.  Philby was not a victim of cerebral palsy.  He was a victim of murder.

I applaud your effort and dedication to shedding light on this horrific crime.  I hope my letter has given you pause and will advise you on how to proceed on disability matters going forward.

Cara Liebowitz