Meghan Schrader

@meghan-schrader | contributor
I want to write and read stories about disability.

How the Right to Die Movement Disrespects People With Disabilities

In the last few months, the practice of assisted suicide has finally managed to bleed into the liberal Northeast. Here we go again, I guess: nothing matters but autonomy. Not  disability  rights, not universal human equality, not prudence: only the honeyed promises of a pseudo-progressivism that regards death as a personal choice. Surely politicians in those states are aware of the warnings that disability rights activists have given about the dangers of that practice, but from what I’ve seen, they have chosen to ignore us. From what I’ve seen, one of the major reasons for our voices having been ignored is propaganda that ignores uncomfortable facts about the implications of legalizing assisted  suicide . For instance, in 2014, Brittany Maynard’s move to Oregon made national headlines. Despite the fact people move to take advantage of different state laws all the time, this run-of-the-mill decision was framed as reigniting the right to die debate. Given the plethora of individuals who move across state lines on a daily basis, Maynard’s actions really didn’t strike me as newsworthy. However, Maynard teamed up with Compassion and Choices, and in media coverage her actions went beyond rational criticism or reproach. During Maynard’s campaign, she and her family assured citizens that what she viewed as “aid in dying” would only be used for people with terminal illnesses. Despite the opposition of a plethora of disability rights groups such as the National Council on Disability, ADAPT, ASAN, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and Not Dead Yet, a ny suggestion that this practice could abnegate the rights of people living with disabilities was dismissed as hysteria spurred by secret religious convictions. Hence, I was disgusted, but not surprised, by one of the comments that was made during a 2015 New Jersey hearing on assisted suicide I attended. One of the proponents who was not terminally ill said, “Well, this may not be politically correct, but I’ve been here all day and I’m going to give it to you as I see it: if this bill passes, it would be the first rung in a ladder of autonomy that all of us should have. I don’t really believe we should be terminal in six months. I might want it, especially if, and this is another no-no, I might become a burden. I’m 78, my children are OK, so it’s OK if I go now.” Did the governor not encounter sentiments like this, or does he just not care? One might respond that this was just one person sharing his opinion, and that’s true. However, a few weeks before the hearing, the Washington Post published a piece suggesting that perhaps people with “acute mental suffering” should be allowed to die as well, in the process betraying anyone living with serious psychiatric symptoms. As someone who has experienced episodes of such symptoms, I took the article as an expression of deep disrespect for me and my peers. At the time, I was doing everything I possibly could to keep my  depression  symptoms in remission. Every day, I ate well and exercised. I took medication without fail and attended therapy twice a week. Whenever I had suicidal thoughts, I immediately personified them as “the depression talking” and “told” the depression to go “screw” itself. I feel publishing that article was an extreme expression of how little the editors of the Washington Post cared about the well-being of the people with mental illness who would inevitably read it. It was a sophomoric exercise that reflected a deep sense of entitlement. The New York Times took a similarly rude approach when it published a 2015 article, “Helping a Suicide When the End Isn’t Near” on its online forum for all people with a mental illness to read. Again, I have to wonder what the editor of that page was thinking. The guidelines from the World Health Organization say it is irresponsible to present suicide as a solution in any context whatsoever. The apparent exception of people with disabilities from this mandate shows the deep contempt that society still has for us. If we were not second-class citizens, media moguls like the New York Times wouldn’t publish articles suggesting all the broken, hopeless “defectives” across the nation should have the right to put ourselves out of our misery. The paper would not publish such pieces because the editors would be too worried about backlash from the social justice movement. It seems that because disability rights continue to receive mere lip service in public dialogues about civil rights, the papers published this piece without any pushback from the broader civil rights movement. People with mental illnesses already face serious discrimination in the occupational, educational and personal spheres, and now we are having our suicides validated in the national news. The lack of basic respect behind this development is appalling. Moreover, in reading pieces that advocate for the extension of assisted suicide to people with mental illnesses, I didn’t see any follow-ups giving people with psychiatric disorders the chance to respond to this denigration. One would think the newspapers validating our dangerous impulses would want to give people with those disorders a chance to defend ourselves. The fixation on these stories at the expense of any other concern has left me with deep sense of indignation toward the right to die movement, its representatives and its narrative. Very often, proponents cast opponents as people who are frightened of being murdered if society legalizes assisted suicide. However, from talking to other activists in the disability rights movement, I feel comfortable saying the people I know are not motivated by fear. Rather, disabled opponents are motivated by self-respect. I know I’m not afraid I’m going to be murdered; I am angry that the powers that be have subjected people with disabilities to third-class citizenship in the service of this debate. The mainstream media constantly touts the narrative that “aid in dying” is for the terminally ill, while they simultaneously publish sophomoric musings about that longed-for day when assisted suicide will be extended to people living with painful disabilities. Hence, I feel as though the right to die movement, its superstars and its enablers have essentially demanded that people with disabilities not use our brains. The fact that extending assisted suicide was validated in our most prominent publications shows that those of us with disabilities who oppose that practice are not being “hysterical,” we are using powers of logic and deduction. Moreover, when considered in respect to the evidence surrounding us, the notion that our opposition to assisted suicide motivated by religion is vapid; it is a lazy, easy way to gaslight us and ignore practical concerns about a significant public policy change. As a person who has lived through intense psychiatric symptoms, it strikes me that politicians who have allowed themselves to fixate on one person’s story and on the right to die movement’s conception of “autonomy” have chosen ignorance. Surely they must be aware of the campaign to extend assisted suicide to people with disabilities; articles extolling the proposal have appeared in major newspapers. Ergo, it strikes me that the right to die movement is not only misguided, it is willfully ignorant. If I ever had any doubts about my opposition to assisted suicide, they have been negated by the right to die movement’s determination to march ahead no matter how badly it denigrates and disrespects people with disabilities. It’s sad that many of our government’s leaders have chosen to ignore that pattern. If you are a disabled person who is having suicidal thoughts, visit the LiveOnProject, a suicide prevention resource for the disabled community.

The Long-Term Effects of Being Bullied

Back in 2014, when I was working as a substitute teacher, a principal called me into her office. She wanted me to know that an incident I’d referred to as “bullying” was not bullying, and that what I’d seen did not fall into the category of persistent harassment that would require a school response. “Well, the entire class kept screaming at Fred and saying things like, “I hope you die, Fred, and…” “That’s not bullying,” she told me. Then she said, “Fred might seem sweet, but he’s very manipulative. He provokes the other students.” Part of me wanted to shoot back, “You’re right, let’s not do anything, let’s wait until Fred has PTSD.” Instead, I nodded my head and left her office. Then I quietly filed a bullying report. This encounter reminded me of how easy it is for people in power to circumvent systems that are put in place to protect vulnerable people. Moreover, as a survivor of bullying, it struck me as tantamount to blaming a sexual abuse victim for an assault, and reminded me of a dichotomy I’d drawn in my own mind many times. When I was 5, a neighbor molested me in the woods behind my house. This is certainly a terrible thing to happen to a 5-year-old, but I don’t remember most of that experience. I have a hazy memory of interacting with him and telling my parents, but other than that, the experience wasn’t really a part of my life growing up. That is until it became a metaphor for the bullying I had experienced as a child around age 17. To my family’s horror, I began ruminating over the event over and over again in order to articulate why I felt so depressed all the time. In college, I wished there was a support group for survivors of bullying, but there wasn’t one, so I attended one for sexual assault victims instead. I concluded that if the bullying could not have caused my mental state, it must have been the assault. However, as an adult, I realized I was right the first time. It wasn’t the assault that was haunting me, it was the bullying I went through. There are many reasons why those experiences were worse than the assault. First of all, I remember all of the extreme bullying very clearly. I remember the specific episodes, the words, the physical contact, the embarrassment, shock and confusion I felt. When I was assaulted, I didn’t understand what was happening. Moreover, there was no one nearby who could have stopped what happened. No adults stood by and watched while he did it, or told me afterwards that “a little sexual assault” was good for me. Hence, that experience didn’t make me feel betrayed by an authority figure. Similarly, the experience with my neighbor happened once and then it was over. In contrast, I interacted with my bullies six hours a day at least five days a week. The bullying I went through happened at school, at church, during after school activities, and at camp in another state. I would be peeling an orange at lunchtime and another student would come over to my table to tell me that she hated me and the whole school hated me. I didn’t spend any time wondering what I did to make my neighbor molest me. In contrast, I remember wracking my brain for reasons why so many people hated me, and ways I could make it stop. Was I just “vulnerable” because of my cognitive disability? Where the other children sociopaths? Would it stop when I got older, as many adults assured me? I got my answer: no. When I was molested, I was believed and supported. I also didn’t see my mother have to attempt to circumvent parents, school personnel and camp counselors who wouldn’t do anything about it, which is what happened in the course of the bullying. My parents and I loved each other more than anything, and I struggled to forgive the bureaucratic selfishness that subjected my family to that pain. You don’t need to be bullied to develop the accurate understanding of authority as bureaucratic and corrupt, but those experiences took away any doubts I might have had about that impression. Those experiences were also fundamental in shaping my spiritual life and my perceptions of good and evil. For instance, in 1995 another girl was following me around incessantly, coldly calling me a “retard” and making death threats. I tried the old hat trick of ignoring her, but no matter how much I tried to focus on the trees or the ground instead of her voice, she kept at it. Finally, I faced her and demanded, “Why are you doing this to me?” “Because it’s fun,” she said flatly. “It’s funny! And I like it.” In contrast to the scientific explanations for cruel behavior that predominate in contemporary society, that experience reified my existing belief in the demonic. The act of tormenting someone for one’s own gratification is evil. It was easier to imagine my sexual assailant as a confused and wounded soul who made a tragic mistake than it was to extend that same consideration to my bullies. The assault was a terrible thing, but I didn’t spend hours trying to understand it as a cross prepared for me at the foundation of the world, or see forgiving the perpetrator as a specific task Jesus exhorted me to accept. The assault also didn’t cause a memory of what I experienced as a crack in my Christian convictions when I finally broke down during an episode of bullying and screamed, “I hate you!” Those kinds of experiences also had a formative impact on how I regard human nature, and what political positions I take as a result. Pretty much all of my disability rights activism has been influenced by them at one time or another. That isn’t inherently bad, but none of those distinct beliefs were forged by my molesting neighbor. These experiences form the background of my belief that preventing bullying is a major social justice issue. I wish bullying was treated seriously enough for there to be support groups for survivors, so we could have a place to process our grief. Healing from bullying shouldn’t be a patchwork effort. Although school responses to bullying have evolved over the years, society still misunderstands and fails to address the seriousness of the experience. It remains too easy for people in authority to abuse loopholes and circumvent them, leaving students to go through the same pain my family and I experienced. Children like my student Fred have a right to be protected from that abuse. No 9-year-old should have to be at risk of sitting in therapy when he’s 17, much less when he’s 32, trying to figure out why he feels so bad. As responsible citizens of a free society, we have the capacity to do better than that.

Being Questioned When I Need Disability Accommodations

Integrity is perhaps the most important thing in life. It guides our choices and can be critical in maintaining a sense of self-respect in regard to those decisions. I did the right thing. I made a good choice. I told the truth. No one is perfect, but knowing we did the best we could to live by our principles can allow us to be comfortable with our circumstances and with ourselves. We won’t always succeed at the endeavors we pursue, but at least we can be at peace with ourselves, even if our choices don’t turn out perfectly. In contrast, the quickest way to exacerbate a challenging situation is to violate one’s ethics. If we are ashamed of something we did, or unsure of how it correlates to our principles, our circumstances can become much more difficult to deal with. Being obliged to prove my learning disorder still exists every time I obtain accommodations on a standardized test or enroll in a degree program is too much of a psychological burden to bear quietly. For instance, requiring adult students to have had a psycho-educational evaluation in the last three years before we can access accommodations in the post-secondary sphere is unfairly burdensome. Given that my disability has existed since birth and has never changed, I cannot think of any reason for this requirement other than to control the degree to which disabled students are able to access education, and to answer society’s tacit accusation of dishonesty. We live in a free society that supposedly values equity, yet constantly gaslights the judgment and intentions of people with invisible disabilities. As someone who values honesty deeply, few things hurt me more than the fear or perception that I am doing something immoral. If I were able-bodied and misrepresented myself as a disabled person, I would be telling a terrible lie, and that isn’t something I would do. Indeed, constantly having to prove that one is telling the truth about how one’s body functions  can be bad for one’s mental health. In navigating academia and the workplace, I constantly feel questioned about whether I really am as disabled as I think I am, whether I’m more disabled than I think I am, or whether I am disabled at all. It’s exhausting having to develop and maintain my moral identity in this cultural climate. At times I started to think I could not trust my perceptions of reality. Holy crud, what if it is in my head? Moreover, as someone who has been raised to expect medical privacy, I find the experience of submitting in-depth medical information to people I don’t know, much less disclosing even more details extemporaneously so professors and disability services offices will believe I “deserve” accommodations, to be deeply disconcerting. Even if I don’t want to share such private information, HIPPA is no help; I have to share it, or I can expect the toll of functioning without accommodations to start chipping away at my quality of life. I’m not ashamed of my disability, but disclosure should be voluntary, not coerced by systemic factors. The former is empowering, the latter is demoralizing. What’s more, I find that the process erodes my sense of trust in the superiors who are demanding that information. If person A does not trust me, why should I trust him? Besides power dynamics, what gives that person a claim to the kind of trust he will not extend to me? As a person who needs and cares about disability rights, I urge the higher and K-12 educational sectors to trust students with learning disabilities more. Presume that students and their families are making accommodation requests in good faith, in full consultation with our consciences and values. This is one of the most important and yet unmet means of providing the disabled community with social equity.

Being Questioned When I Need Disability Accommodations

Integrity is perhaps the most important thing in life. It guides our choices and can be critical in maintaining a sense of self-respect in regard to those decisions. I did the right thing. I made a good choice. I told the truth. No one is perfect, but knowing we did the best we could to live by our principles can allow us to be comfortable with our circumstances and with ourselves. We won’t always succeed at the endeavors we pursue, but at least we can be at peace with ourselves, even if our choices don’t turn out perfectly. In contrast, the quickest way to exacerbate a challenging situation is to violate one’s ethics. If we are ashamed of something we did, or unsure of how it correlates to our principles, our circumstances can become much more difficult to deal with. Being obliged to prove my learning disorder still exists every time I obtain accommodations on a standardized test or enroll in a degree program is too much of a psychological burden to bear quietly. For instance, requiring adult students to have had a psycho-educational evaluation in the last three years before we can access accommodations in the post-secondary sphere is unfairly burdensome. Given that my disability has existed since birth and has never changed, I cannot think of any reason for this requirement other than to control the degree to which disabled students are able to access education, and to answer society’s tacit accusation of dishonesty. We live in a free society that supposedly values equity, yet constantly gaslights the judgment and intentions of people with invisible disabilities. As someone who values honesty deeply, few things hurt me more than the fear or perception that I am doing something immoral. If I were able-bodied and misrepresented myself as a disabled person, I would be telling a terrible lie, and that isn’t something I would do. Indeed, constantly having to prove that one is telling the truth about how one’s body functions  can be bad for one’s mental health. In navigating academia and the workplace, I constantly feel questioned about whether I really am as disabled as I think I am, whether I’m more disabled than I think I am, or whether I am disabled at all. It’s exhausting having to develop and maintain my moral identity in this cultural climate. At times I started to think I could not trust my perceptions of reality. Holy crud, what if it is in my head? Moreover, as someone who has been raised to expect medical privacy, I find the experience of submitting in-depth medical information to people I don’t know, much less disclosing even more details extemporaneously so professors and disability services offices will believe I “deserve” accommodations, to be deeply disconcerting. Even if I don’t want to share such private information, HIPPA is no help; I have to share it, or I can expect the toll of functioning without accommodations to start chipping away at my quality of life. I’m not ashamed of my disability, but disclosure should be voluntary, not coerced by systemic factors. The former is empowering, the latter is demoralizing. What’s more, I find that the process erodes my sense of trust in the superiors who are demanding that information. If person A does not trust me, why should I trust him? Besides power dynamics, what gives that person a claim to the kind of trust he will not extend to me? As a person who needs and cares about disability rights, I urge the higher and K-12 educational sectors to trust students with learning disabilities more. Presume that students and their families are making accommodation requests in good faith, in full consultation with our consciences and values. This is one of the most important and yet unmet means of providing the disabled community with social equity.