On March 1, the Mills College Disability Advocacy Club held a Disability Community Day of Mourning vigil to commemorate those with disabilities killed by their family members. This day of mourning happens each year on March 1 and is observed around the world by the disability community.
Filling one of the photographs placed on a Mills chapel window, Melissa Stoddard’s smile stretches wide between a pair of rose colored cheeks. Her chocolate brown eyes gleam, despite some loose strands from her thick dark curls rippling near the corner of her right eye and down to her nose. She doesn’t seem to care. She looks happy and alive.
Eleven-year-old Stoddard, who was autistic, had fun swimming and dancing. She liked to help lead her special education classroom and had a fascination with ladybugs.
“She did everything with passion. If she had a behavior, she was passionate. If she was happy, she was passionate,” McIver Education Center Principal Sara Nachtrab said to the Herald-Tribune. “There was no middle ground with Melissa.”
Then on Dec. 17, 2012, Stoddard was suffocated in restraints her stepmother and biological father routinely placed her in.
In the past five years, more than 650 people with disabilities including Stoddard have been the victims of filicide. In other words, they were murdered by their parents, relatives or caregivers. This estimate is according to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).
“A large part of the decision to do Disability Day of Mourning is to talk about what is a disabled life and the fact that a disabled life is one that is whole just the way it is with all its complexities and struggles that are unique to it,” Disability Advocacy Club member Ari Yovel said. “We are not incomplete humans. We are not less than.”
Preceding the vigil, tripods placed near Rothwell Center displayed the known names of those with disabilities that had been murdered by their family members or caregivers. ASAN maintains an index of victims by year dating back to 1980. On the ground, near the easels, #ddom2019 and #murdernotmercy had been written in chalk.
“A lot of the deaths of disabled individuals in each community, they’re not reported,” Disability Advocacy Club President Katherine Neithercutt said. “Often times, deaths of these individuals are considered sympathetic and, therefore, are considered normal, which is atrocious.”
About 30 minutes later, Members of the Disability Advocacy Club began a procession to carry the tripods from Rothwell Center to the Chapel.
The candlelight vigil commenced at 1:15 p.m. Julia Cohen, Mills director of accessibility services, and Neithercutt opened up the space. Cohen made an opening statement and Neithercutt lighted a candle of community and a candle of memory, placed on a central altar.
Pictures of children with disabilities who were victims of filicide were placed on the windows surrounding the pews. Stoddard’s beaming grin could be found among them.
Richard Lucardie and Dick Sobsey, from the University of Alberta, assessed that about 70 percent of murdered children with disabilities, aged fourteen and younger, are victims of filicide.
Then they began a communal reading of “On Our Backs, We Will Carry Them” by ASAN President Ari Ne’eman to reflect on the 2015 Disability Community Day of Mourning. Those that felt comfortable reading Ne’eman’s statement did so a paragraph at a time.
“We needed that in order to decentralize the idea of one person MCing the event, and single-handedly leading it, and wanting to reclaim the idea of shared personhood and community,” Yovel said.
Following the communal reading was a shared reading of the known names of those with disabilities who had been murdered by their family members or caregivers. Once again, participants comfortable doing so read a year worth of names each, from 2009 to 2019. There was also a moment of silence for all the names not identified or reported.
“Part of the reason we wanted to do the reading of the names is to allow each name to take up space and be recognized as a whole life that was taken from some,” said Yovel. “That person had a name; they had a life.”
Then attendees had the chance to light candles, place flowers and write notes of memory. The Disability Advocacy Club provided artificial calla lilies, a symbol of grief, for this portion of events.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge that there’s a lack of knowledge [and empathy] that are causing these people to die,” Disability Advocacy Club member Meredyth Cohen said. “Especially with Disability Advocacy Club, these are people in our community being murdered for the same things that we have….That’s really sad and that’s something that we need to recognize.”
One door of the chapel’s inner entrance had a poster where participants could write down things that other people had to say about their disability. On the other door there was a poster for what they had to say about their disability.
“[It’s about] getting to look at the wildly different things people say about themselves versus the ways that other people identify those experiences,” Yovel said. “[It’s about] acknowledging that your internal versus external realities are wildly different as a disabled person because a lot of times people will pity you.”
The vigil concluded with a reading of “I am not a burden (Day of Mourning 2014)” from blogger Turtle Is A Verb.
ASAN provides a anti-filicide toolkit that the Disability Advocacy Club used to plan the candlelight vigil.
“We had people from Mills who were staff, faculty, members of the administration and students, as well as people who weren’t from Mills at all,” Yovel said. “That was really moving for me that people made the time and the space to participate in what we were doing.”
For the death of their daughter in 2014, stepmother Misty Stoddard was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life. Biological father Kenneth Stoddard was sentenced to 65 years for aggravated manslaughter and aggravated child abuse.
“I am not a burden. You were not. The rest us of who are living are not either,” Turtle Is A Verb blogged. “I need to hope that there are no more of you, no matter how unlikely that will be at the moment, because maybe, hopefully, you were the last.”