Zoe Gross is being honored as a Champion of Change for embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and her commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act..
I had a lot in common with George Hodgins. He lived in a quiet suburban neighborhood an hour or so away from the quiet suburban neighborhood where I grew up. We were both autistic, very close in age, both struggling with our transitions to adulthood and independent living. We both had interests we were passionate about. I was absorbed in disability advocacy whereas George was more athletic, preferring hiking and soccer. I was on leave from college last spring; George’s parents had recently withdrawn him from a local day program he attended.
The first point of difference between George and me: I will turn 23 this fall. George never will.
On March 6, 2012, George Hodgins was murdered in Sunnyvale, California. His mother, Elizabeth, shot him point-blank, and then killed herself.
Journalists covering the event for local papers called George “low functioning and high maintenance.” They called Elizabeth Hodgins “a devoted and loving mother.” They sought out quotes from other parents of autistic children, who normalized the crime by saying things like “every mother I know who has a child with special needs has a moment just like that.” Many people commenting on these articles also expressed sympathy for the mother, calling her a “guardian angel.” Many said her decision to kill George was “understandable” because autistic children are difficult to parent, because there aren’t enough services for families, or because given his disability and an assumption that he could not have enjoyed life anyway.
Reading these things, I felt alone in my mourning. There seemed to be an outpouring of grief and sympathy for the murderer, and far less sympathy for the victim. The ideas being expressed about autistic people, and people with disabilities, frightened and upset me. So I reached out to my community, and we grieved together. Working with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, Not Dead Yet, and the National Council on Independent Living, I started Day of Mourning, a nation-wide vigil commemorating the lives of people with disabilities murdered by their parents or caregivers.
I feel strongly that prejudice and ignorance about people with disabilities leads to these murders, and to the crafting of sympathetic messaging around them. Because so many people in our society can’t imagine a person with disability living a fulfilling life, they don’t see the tragedy and the wasted potential when one of our lives is cut short. How do we communicate that the lives of people with disabilities have actual value? All too often, society grieves over the existence of people with disabilities, mourning our lives instead of our deaths.
The Day of Mourning vigils represent a stand against these prejudices, and an affirmation of the value of our lives as people with disabilities. They serve to challenge the prejudiced way these murders are covered in news media, and support the need for true justice for crimes perpetrated against people with disabilities. The vigils allow people with disabilities to come together as a community and a culture, to support each other and to remember our dead. Most of all, the Day of Mourning vigils ensure that George Hodgins and others like him will be remembered as they deserve – not as burdens or as tragedies, but as people whose lives mattered.
Zoe Gross is a Patricia Morrissey Disability Policy Fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership.