in the burbank chapel, As attendees prepared to hear the names of the dead, Pastor Ryan Chaddick welcomed the sparse crowd with familiarity.
“I’m here tonight and we’re doing this,” said Chaddick, dressed simply in black, “because for some reason in 2023 we have to tell the world that killing disabled people is wrong.”
It seemed ridiculous, he said, to even have to announce that.
“But as long as disabled people are being killed for being disabled,” he said, “I will rage against the night and we will light candles in protest and curse and pray.”
About a dozen people had broken into the Burbank church on that frigid night in early March to commemorate Disability. Day of mourning. To hear the names of people killed by parents and other relatives or caregivers. To listen to poems, songs and readings about the indignation of disabled people who lose their lives at the hands of those who had to safeguard them.
For the Lutheran pastor, like many others in the chapel, the horror of those murders hits him. He is an autistic man, diagnosed in adulthood. He is also the father of autistic children, one of whose diagnoses set his own in motion. And his own journey to understand his daughters and himself led him to rethink things in his life and his church.
“All of us, um, pretty sure, because I know you or have talked to you, everyone here is either disabled or crazy,” Chaddick, 38, told the crowd with a slight smile and a nod before the readings began. “Welcome.”
In the United States, people with disabilities are nearly four times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than people without disabilities, according to an analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And when victimized, people with disabilities are twice as likely as other people to experience violence at the hands of a family member, including their parents.
More than a decade ago, Zoe Gross helped launch the now-international annual event in reaction to the news framing of one such murder. Gross, advocacy director for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, was appalled by the news coverage after the murder of 22-year-old Sunnyvale resident George Hodgins, who was shot by his mother, who later killed herself.
The tone of the stories, he said, seemed sympathetic to the perpetrator, a sympathy he found alarmingly lacking for the disabled victim herself. Gross recalled an article quoting a mother as saying, “Every mother I know who has a child with special needs has a moment like that.”
It was “really normalizing this very disturbing and tragic thing that happened,” he said. “To say that the urgency is in all parents with disabled children, I found it very disturbing.”
Later that month, a San Diego woman drowned her 4-year-old autistic son in a bathtub. gross, in an essayhe asked anyone who had said the murder of George Hodgins was understandable, anyone who had called it a “mercy killing,” to think if that mother in San Diego had heard them.
During the pandemic, after their oldest daughter underwent an evaluation and was found to be autistic, Chaddick and his wife began reading books on “what it’s like to be an autistic child,” finding it jarringly familiar. So was a Hannah Gadsby comedy special, describing experiences as a child before she was diagnosed with autism as an adult.
Researchers have discovered that autism tends to run in families, although much is still unknown about its biological bases. When Chaddick came to recognize himself as autistic, the pastor decided to seek a formal diagnosis, a step that can be difficult for adults, who sometimes struggle to find specialists willing to diagnose adults at all.
A developmental disability that can affect the way people think, communicate, interact, and process sensory information, autism defies simple generalizations. There’s no one way to be autistic, but for Chaddick, it means he has a hard time parsing exactly what people mean when they say they’re fine, he said.
Wear headphones to the grocery store to reduce the overwhelming noise. About once a month, she has to go to the post office to pick up the mail that has accumulated, she said, because she forgot or neglected to go down to the mailbox.
But as a kid, “he didn’t collect trains and put them all in line, so he didn’t calculate,” he said.
The process of getting his diagnosis forced him to talk about the most painful and alienating moments of his life, he said. Chaddick recalls that at one point he told his doctor, “I feel like I’m trying to show you how disabled I am.”
“He said, ‘Well, let me assure you, you are definitely autistic.'”
One of the gifts of being autistic, Chaddick said, is that “sometimes I don’t know how to No say the thing
“Not having the filter that other people have,” he said. “Sitting in spaces with people who feel uncomfortable.”
That includes the heaviness of the Day of Mourning for Disability. “It’s kind of hard to invite people, because there’s a lot in the American conscience that says, ‘Whistle in the graveyard,’” he said. “We intentionally tried to say, ‘Please don’t whistle. Please stay here.’”
“Unless we can confront ableism,” he said, “it’s going to continue to hurt everyone.”
Inside the Burbank sanctuary, the names were read aloud on a recording. The faces of each of the dead appeared briefly on the screens flanking the chapel as their names were called.
A little boy sticking out his tongue. A white-haired nonagenarian, her surgical mask pulled down to reveal a smile. A young woman who appeared to be posing for a selfie.
For some, there was just a white rectangle, labeled “Photo not available.” For others, a photo of a tombstone.
Ten minutes passed while the names were read, and those were just the most recently added to the list. There were too many names and too many anonymous, the shadowy outlines of their stories culled from the news. reports about people killed by family members and carers around the world. Gross said that the list, which remains onlineit is updated by a volunteer who checks for news alerts.
Some articles say that “the victim’s initials were these, or this was a girl of this age; that’s all we have to do,” Gross said.
In the chapel, however, they were recognized:
“Name unknown, age 5 months.”
“Name unknown, age 72.”
“Unknown name, 6 years old.”
Chaddick stepped forward again and invited the crowd, “however they can, if they can,” to come forward and light candles and plant them in pots filled with sand.
“None of those were mercy killings,” he said, before words seemed at a loss. “I have nothing else.”
As a singer strummed the guitar and sang “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” people began to stream to the front of the chapel. One by one, they lit candles and stuck them into the sand, forming a tiny congregation of flames. A father came over with his youngest son to light candles, then returned to the bench where they had been sitting, his arm around his son.
Screens that had shown the names and faces of the dead now lit up to show a person in a wool cap sitting in a car in Minnesota, reading the words: “I’m not a burden.”
“You were 9 years old. You had a life ahead of you. And then you didn’t. You were a person. It is not a burden”, Emily Stoll, former youth director of the church, read on the screens. “You were 24, or 10, or 15, or 40. You all had lives ahead of you. And all of you were people, not loads.”
Parenting is difficult, Chaddick said, especially during a global pandemic. And like any father, he has had challenges and frustrations along the way as the father of two girls, ages 4 and 6.
Figuring out how to teach teeth brushing was “a big struggle” before they found a smartphone game to help. Chaddick had to stop wanting everyone to dine together at one table, which often “doesn’t work for my family” due to their different needs, both sensory and dietary.
“But we watch shows while having dinner together. And we laugh together. And we make messes together,” she said. “I don’t experience any of that as a tragedy.”
The father who had attended the vigil with his young son was Konstantine Anthony, the mayor of Burbank. Anthony, who is autistic, said he had been attending Disability Day of Mourning events for years and “unfortunately, every year since the vigil began, names have been added to the list.”
“It is absolutely devastating to know that there are still people in this world who consider disabled people disposable,” he said.
Outside the church after the vigil, Chaddick greeted the mayor and thanked him and his son for coming. Anthony, looking at his son who was restless because of the cold, told the pastor: “He said that the event was sad, but that the church was boring.”
They laughed together.
Gross said the annual vigils have multiplied and become more accepted among a broader range of disability groups over time. At first, he said, some saw it as a controversial event, biased against parents.
“Which I always found a little confusing,” he said, “because I don’t take these parents who murdered their children as representing all parents with disabled children.”
The pandemic has also highlighted the ways in which people with disabilities are devalued, he said. Disability rights groups were indignant last year, when the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was “encouraging news” that the majority of COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated people were among people with four or more comorbidities, those who “they weren’t good to begin with.” ” The director of the CDC later He apologizedBut Gross said the incident underlined a set of beliefs that “has really permeated all levels of society.”
“A lot of what we’re doing with Day of Mourning is trying to push back an attitude that people have subconsciously,” he said, making it harder to fight back.
As Chaddick came to understand that he and his daughters were autistic, he also became more involved in the cause of disability justice. “Right now, in the church here it is Lent,” he said, the period when Christians reflect and prepare for Easter. “The last two years have been like Lent for me.”
He has rethought the wording of worship songs that use disability as a metaphor for sin, he said, including the famous line: “I was blind, but now I see.” His church limits the volume of his music so that the chapel is not too stimulating for people sensitive to noise. A church reading group is now digesting “My Body Is Not a Prayer Request,” a book on ableism in churches.
His Burbank church makes closed captioning available for services offered online, he said. He has sourced fidget spinners for children and adults who find them useful, and his church is working on a grant application for an American Sign Language interpreter and putting together bags loaded with more accessibility tools for anyone who comes to worship. .
“Now I am more aware,” he said. “It is painful to see that I did not perceive these things before. But once you have it, you can’t stop.”