Monday, July 7, 2014
The Oscar Pistorius trial: When disability isn't an excuse
"Can I ask you a special needs question?" a friend said. She went on to tell me about a child with autism she'd seen at a local playground who had a habit of pushing other kids out of his way. On recent weekend, the playground was filled with kids and as my friend watched, the boy zoomed off a slide and shoved another boy as he ran by.
"You should have seen what happened five minutes ago," a dad standing nearby said. The child had pushed another kid, and his mother had approached the father. It was unclear what she had said to him, but the father's response had been, "Calm the eff down, he's autistic."
My friend wanted to know what I thought. My first reaction was, special needs is not an excuse for letting a child shove around another child. Obviously, some kids are prone to acting out because of their diagnoses. My friend said she later watched this father practically wrestle his son to the ground in an attempt to control him. But as parents to kids with special needs, it's our responsibility to make sure our children aren't a threat to others or themselves, as best we can.
I was thinking about that story this weekend, as the Oscar Pistorius case makes headlines and his disability is coming into play. The Olympian, a double amputee who runs on carbon blades, is on trial for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year; he supposedly thought she was an intruder when he shot her four times through a wooden bathroom door in his house. When Pistorius testified back in April, he noted that he feels unsteady on his "stumps," as he calls them. "I don't have balance," he said. "I have very limited mobility." He keeps his blades by his bed, and puts them on once he wakes up. His team says he was not wearing them the night Steenkamp died.
Last week, a key part of the trial revolved around the psychological ramifications of his disability. Pistorius's lawyer made the case that there are two Oscars, "One of whom was a global sports star and one of whom was 'vulnerable' and 'scared.'" When Doctor Wayne Derman, who spent years working with the athlete, took the stand he said, "The saddest thing I have learned through my six years of working with athletes with disability is that disability never sleeps. It's there when you go to sleep at night and it's there when you wake up in the morning. It affects nearly every aspect of your life." He noted that he has seen "exaggerated fight or flight" responses in people with disabilities that he has not seen in people without them.
This line of defense has riled disability rights groups. "Frankly, I think there's a little bit of exploitation of his physical disability to say that it's linked to some mental health issue that would cause him to commit murder," said Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability. "It's too much of a stretch." Noted Henry Claypoll, the executive vice president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, "The bottom line is I don't think you can justify these actions by his having lived with a disability."
So, there, two wholly different circumstances in which disability has been used as an excuse. I am not unfamiliar with that. When Max has screeched at restaurants or events, I've had to explain his sensory issues—although we remove him from the setting, so as not to disturb other people. For awhile, he had this habit of kicking seats in front of him on planes, and we'd have to explain why as we tried our best to muffle the kicks or stop them. Again, his sensory issues were the reason, but I never considered them permission to let him act however he wants.
I've struggled with Pistorius's defense. This is a gutsy, formidable, accomplished pro athlete; he didn't get where he is without being a fire breather. To me, he's always been an amazing example of someone who's showed the world the ability in disability. In a video leaked this weekend that shows Pistorius re-enacting that night, he looks pretty solid on his "stumps." I sure don't know what it feels like to not have on the blades you use for legs and think your home was being invaded (if that part is true), but I am not comfortable with that as justification for murder. Of course, when you're on trial for murder, you pull out all the stops; blaming a disability, even that of a world-class athlete, plays into misguided societal beliefs that the disabled are weak and vulnerable.
In the end, Pistorius's fate lies in the hands of the judge, who will decide whether Pistorius made a mistake and if so, whether his response was reasonable (jury trials were abolished in South Africa in 1969 out of concern of racial prejudice by jurors). Yet no matter what the outcome, the image of people with disability may have already sustained damage—among people who think they exploit their challenges, and by those who see people with disabilities as victims.
About the child in the first part of your post. No-one gets an excuse for deliberately hurting another person. What is going to happen when that child gets stronger and can harm his parents.ReplyDelete
I recently attended CPI training for my district. One of the staff members has a teenager who is mentally ill. She had to restrain him in public to keep him from hurting someone. This was reported to the police as her assaulting her son. When the police investigated, her having her CPI card and explaining what happened paired with them viewing the store's surveillance cameras to confirm her account, as she put it saved her butt.
She suggested that the district offer this training to parents. Unfortunately the district insurance company has nixed that. Concerned people are trying to get the training offered through another agency.
Wow. What an awful mess. I also think police in general need training for better understanding what it means to have a disability.Delete
I work with a child with autism who is particularly aggressive. If we go to the park, I am constantly 'stalking' him to make sure he doesn't attempt to injure someone. If he does, I apologize to the child/parent, and lead him away to calm down. We usually try to use blaming his diagnosis as a last resort, because it can totally skewer someone's view of autism, and disability in general.ReplyDelete
I've been following this trial 'religiously', and it's been incredibly frustrating. I honestly hope that justice is in fact, served.
You are a responsible parent who is doing the right thing -- you supervise closely, you correct, you have your kid apologise and you take your kid home if he is unable to behave in a safe and respectful manner at that particular moment in time. And you try again another day.Delete
This really isn't any different from the process of 'socializing' a neurotypical kid -- mine NT 3 yo is just coming out of a seemingly-endless biting phase which has involved leaving you do not want to know how many birthday parties, playdates, and McD's playground structures. And you try again another day.
So right, it's every parent's responsibility to make sure their kid is not hurting another. Glad the biting phase is done!Delete
Someone in my soccer league would breathe down my neck. When we went to another park to play another team, someone pulled my hair. I think they were both on special teams. I still want nothing to do with them.ReplyDelete
My daughter has a classmate with autism and Tourette's who spends all day, every day yelling vile things at her and her classmates. It's involuntary and awful. My kid is required to be civil to that little boy, B, but doesn't much like him. She's required to to be (and is) polite to him but cannot be compelled to like him. We live in a tiny town, there is one class per grade until high school, so she is likely to be sworn at and called fat by B on a daily basis until 2020, i.e. when they'll be 14.Delete
The heartbreaking part is the calls I get from B's mom on something approaching a regular basis, inquiring why my kid is nice to B but declines all playdates with him. My kid has zero desire to see her son outside of school and I won't force her to do so (and, well, after the 15th consecutive invitation is declined, I'm starting to think the apple does not fall all that far from the tree in the social skills department). Every once in while some other kid declines a playdate with my girl because, well, I guess they'd rather not see her outside of school/ballet/wherever -- and, well, it's no biggie. The world to continues to spin on its axis.
As far as I'm concerned, if it's fine for a kid to decline a playdate with a child they don't particularly like who does NOT have a disability. So why wouldn't it be equally fine for a kid to decline a playdate with a child they don't particularly like who just HAPPENS to have a disability?
Have you explained to B's mom? Yes it is OK to turn down a play date. But if mom calls to ask why, be honest and kind and tell her why. If you need to, write out what you want to say so you are prepared. One guess is that she is trying to figure out how to help her son have a play date, what he needs to learn first.Delete
I was going to say the same thing: I think you need to be honest with B's mom, who may not even be aware of what B has been saying to your daughter.Delete
B's mom knows -- her son has a para and gets a daily update. Her son's behavior is involuntary. A vocal tic + "getting stuck", as kids on the spectrum often do, is a bad combination. B's mom talks to the class about her son's disabilities a few times a year -- and explains why B yelling bad words or name-calling isn't bullying. It's also unlikely to stop anytime soon. And I won't make my kid spend time with B outside of school... so guess that will be a convo I need to have with B's mom upon locating my big girl panties.Delete
Carlee, it's totally reasonable to turn down that playdate. I hope the conversation goes OK. I think you can order big-girl panties on Amazon. :)Delete
The legal defense is Pistorious' case is not about excusing murder. The idea is simply that before one shoots off a gun one has to honestly believe that they are in danger. Under the argument presented by his defense If Pistorious did not believe he was in danger his disability would not come into play. If the jury believe he intended to harm or kill his girlfriend his disability would not come into play even under the defense theory.ReplyDelete
The defense's argument is instead this: To understand if Pistorious had a genuine fear for his life when he pulled the trigger, if it was reasonable for him to have such a fear, one has to understand how his disability effects his beliefs about his ability to get away from a potential threat.
I''m not sure how good an argument it is, but it's a little different than you are presenting it.
Exactly, the legal defense is attempting to explain how his disability played into his fears. In effect, they are using his disability as a primary excuse for that fear, as disability rights groups have objected to.Delete
I am not sure about all, but I live in America. Here, in most cases, we feel safe. I have read that in South Africa it is normal to fear intruders and for your life. Not an excuse for murder, if that is what it was but we need to remember, he is in South Africa not America. That can play a big role in why maybe he was in great fear, not just from his disability.Delete
Many times a child with sensory issues will push/shove another because they need the sensory input.ReplyDelete
Many times a child with developmental delays will use hitting as a way to try to ask someone if they want to play.
While neither are acceptable responses, the hard part for parents is trying to figure out what is going on and then trying to have appropriate actions.
With autism (and other delays) ALL behavior is communication. Trying to figure out what is being communicated is a whole different thing.
As a parent of a child with CP and less balance/protective reflexes, the story of the child with autism scares me. It is already a fine line between helicoptering and safety with typical rowdy preschooler play at playgrounds. Kids with autism (or any other reason) who act aggressively are a real safety risk for my kid.ReplyDelete
I do think that if a child has sensory issues/tends to hit/etc, a parent has an increased responsibility to keep their behaviors under control - the same way I did when my 2 year old was a (typical for 18 mo olds) biter. Even if it means removing them from a playground/etc.
I wear prostheses due a birth defect. I understand what Pistorius is describing when he isn't wearing his carbon blades. My "feet" I call them, are custom silicone. I feel very vulnerable when they are removed. I walk extremely poorly without them. One stump is so tender I can't walk without something between it and the floor. I suffer from what I diagnose as PTSD. I wake during the night screaming and grab my feet up because I'm afraid to be without them. Dr. Derman made a great observation about disability never sleeping. It doesn't! As far as disability being an excuse for killing someone, I don't believe it is. I blog as The Happy Handicap at http://www.tammypstafford.blogspot.comReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing, Tammy. It seems like many people in the disability community are in your court. I will check out your blog!Delete
One way I think your comparisons are valid is that there is a difference between an "explanation" and an "excuse". I think too often people don't fully understand that. A disability can partially or fully explain someone's behavior, without excusing it.ReplyDelete
However, as one of the commenters above pointed out, Pistorious' court isn't really debating justification in the way we normally think of it. It's all about whether or not he was truly frightened. Which is troubling in itself. If I'm a racist who's truly afraid of African-Americans, does that mean I can shoot them and not be convicted? I suspect that what went on here is that Pistorius is a bit of a gun nut, in a country where fear of home invasion crime is amped up and fueled in part by racism and a history of widespread instability. They're trying to say he was afraid because of his disability, but I don't really buy that. It just doesn't ring true for a man with so many other compensating abilities. Now, another possibility is that he actually had major psychological issues about his disability that only his psychiatrist knew about ... fears that might have gone way beyond what would be rational for him. But it seems like they are implying that "of course" he was fearful ... he's disabled! If he was a quadriplegic, maybe. Otherwise, I say, "Nice try, but no."
I was curious about your take on this, Andrew. Pistorius's mindset, as it relates to his disability, is one of several angles the court is weighing, along with the fact that he lives in a crime-ridden country. Yes, it is troubling that fear is a factor here. Dan Keplinger had this to say on Facebook: "Although it is convenient, people cannot use their disability when it benefits them. You cannot have it both way, even when a disability could get you off the hook for a bad decision."Delete
Well, again, Keplinger's comment assumes that Pistorius and his team are "using" disability as a defence, cynically ... dishonsestly. Does he, deep down, think that his disaility played a part? Or, is he taking that tack because it is a defense available to him, even though he may know that his disability had little or nothing to do with his actions that night.Delete
What's troubling for me as a disabled person is the idea that having a disability necessarily leads to being defenseless and fearful. Also, the idea that people might buy that argument because of how they feel about disability. I'm happy to see, then, that the public reaction seems to be that the argument doesn't wash. I don't think people are quite as simplistic in their view of disability anymore. They realize that while being a double amputee is no joke, an individual like Pistorius may well be not more helpless than anyone else.
Pistorious is also a guy with a hairtrigger temper, a history of shooting off guns in crowded nightclubs and an on-the-record history of having previously physically assaulted his various girlfriends. Presumably that is as much a part of his history as feeling 'vulnerable' in a gated complex with lots of security guards!Delete
To comment on the aggression on the playground issue: I can see it both ways as I had an autistic son who would run up and hit, to get a child's attention, because he didn't have social skills. I was his shadow. Meaning I was right there attempting to interpet/stop him from hitting. It took him a long time to figure out that people don't want to play with a kid who hits. He did eventually get it though. On the other side of the fence in the last four years I've had to deal with a child who had to learn how to walk again, after a stroke. He was really unstable for a long time, and would get plowed by bigger kids. One young man in particular had autism, and would run through the Ronald McDonald house knocking over smaller children. I tried to talk to the mom but she was oblivious. So frustrating. We ended up stuck in our room. Anyway, just thought I'd add that.ReplyDelete
I am glad to see this point being made. A boy with autism once shoved my toddler sister over in a wading pool. My father reprimanded the boy, who didn't seem to have anyone watching him, and was clearly too old for the baby pool anyway. His mother then got off her deck chair and yelled at my father. "[Child] is autistic, and he is sorting out his social skills!" she said. My father apologized to her, but I don't think that being autistic makes it okay to push toddlers over into the water.ReplyDelete
I really liked the explain/excuse distinction made earlier. I totally understand that you might not be able to keep your child from hitting/shoving/whatever, but we don't just let it pass when toddlers hit each other. We tell our typical child not to hit and ask the other child if he's okay. Doing the same when our child with special needs does the same thing would go a long way. It's the idea that having a special need makes it okay for you to hurt other children that I (and others) find frustrating.
[As a side note--my father agrees with me that the mother didn't handle the incident well. He apologized because he figured that mother had a difficult life and was constantly having her parenting criticized for things she really couldn't help and he didn't want to add to her stress. I wish I were that gracious!]
I am autistic and I volunteer with toddlers and preschoolers. Parents who use autism as an excuse for their kids to push other kids promote stigma against other autistic people.Delete
One thought to add which will hopefully be understandable. Because of the way most kids with autism think and process, telling them what not to do is most often not helpful, e.g. don't hit! A more effective thing to do is tell them what to do, e.g. say hi, do a high-5.ReplyDelete
I remember when my son was about 4 and was going to touch a TV screen, someone in the room said "don't touch that". It did nothing. Two issues here are that he didn't know he was being addressed or what was wrong. I said, "Luke, hands up" and he moved his hands because he knew what to do.
Very interesting. Thanks for that tip!Delete
You know, Janet, that seems like wise advice for any kid.Delete
its a gray area of the disable man's life. I think we need to look at our own intention. I believe God is the ultimate judge. Parents also plays an important responsibility to control and also to spread the awareness on people with disability be it physical or mentally.ReplyDelete