Last February, the Daily Mail covered the murder of 10-year-old Dylan Freeman, an autistic boy killed by his mother, Olga. I found numerous issues with its portrayal of the murder. News articles generally must remain objective, but the article’s language clearly favored Dylan’s mother, depicting the murder as a loving act: “Even when she ended Dylan’s life … she lovingly laid out his body surrounded by his favourite toys before calling a close friend to tell her what she had done.”
Dylan’s death was one of countless cases of filicide inflicted on disabled people by their able-bodied caregivers. Although filicide typically refers to a parent’s murdering their child, in the context of disability, it refers to a caregiver’s killing a disabled child or an adult who might rely on them. Over 700 people with disabilities died by filicide in the past five years. Additionally, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network indexes filicide acts against people with disabilities on their Disability Day of Mourning website. Their exact frequency is unclear; filicide is generally underreported, but people with disabilities appear to be at an increased risk.
Widespread sympathy for caregivers who commit these acts of filicide dehumanizes people with disabilities. Mainstream society must stop defending caregivers who kill their disabled dependents.
The Daily Mail’s portrayal of Dylan’s murder isn’t atypical — a common defense of caregivers who murder their disabled dependents is that the person with the disability was harder to take care of.
“The media portrays these murders as justifiable and inevitable due to the ‘burden’ of having a disabled person in the family,” ASAN’s anti-filicide toolkit states. “If the parent stands trial, they are given sympathy and comparatively lighter sentences, if they are sentenced at all.” Indeed, the judge presiding over Dylan’s case argued that Olga bore low responsibility for murdering Dylan due to her having depression and the “burden of caring for a severely disabled boy.”
Some may exclaim, “You have to understand how hard it is.” Yes, I actually understand. From my experience as a disabled person who also helps take care of my disabled brother, I do think it can be harder to look after someone with a disability. Some disabilities can entail more supervision, more hospital trips and less flexible schedules, for example. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, resources that some people with disabilities and their families might have relied on for support are now unavailable or more limited.
Nevertheless, this neither absolves the caregiver of the wrongdoing inherent to filicide nor lessens their responsibility. It does not make people with disabilities less worthy. My parents, who have disabilities too, and I have faced various challenges when taking care of my brother, yet I’ve never considered killing him — not because I’m some kind of hero, but simply because filicide is wrong. Besides, I would not want my parents to kill me for having my disabilities. Nor do insufficient support services, while an issue in their own right, excuse filicide. In some cases, the caregiver turned down services.
Mental illness also does not absolve anyone of any kind of wrongdoing. As someone struggling with mental illness, I’ve learned the hard way that it is not someone’s fault for having a mental illness, but it is their responsibility to ensure that they do not harm others because of it.
People usually grant more sympathy to the caregiver than to the filicide victim. This suggests that the victim’s death was less tragic than the deaths of able-bodied people. “The victim is disregarded, blamed for their own murder at the hands of the person they should have been able to trust the most, and ultimately forgotten,” the toolkit states. Many emphasize the struggles of caring for a person with a disability in defending the caregiver, because you see, they’re human and can only do so much, but so was the filicide victim. No struggle the caregiver faces overrides the disabled person’s right to exist.
Disability advocates contend that the punishment for these caregivers should match that which is granted to those who kill able-bodied people. Matthew Klipp, an autistic student behind the autism advocacy account @g.e.a.r_insta, commented, “Usually murder is life in prison and that’s what I feel these murders not only deserve but it’s semi needed to prevent them from thinking they can get away with it for only a slap on the wrist.”
However, several activists question whether prison and policing are effective forms of accountability at all, citing their racist origins. I do not contest that viewpoint. Still, prison or no prison, whatever accountability process countries choose should be identical regardless of whether the victim was disabled or able-bodied. More leniency for filicide against people with disabilities insinuates that their lives aren’t as important.
Filicide operates on the prevalent belief that it is better to be dead than disabled. This attitude dominates the anti-vaccination movement, based heavily on the fallacy that vaccines cause autism. It’s also present in Gal Gadot’s reaction to Stephen Hawking’s death in 2018.
“Now you’re free of any physical constraints.. Your brilliance and wisdom will be cherished forever,” Gadot tweeted, implying that Hawking’s death was good because it “freed” him of his disabilities. On the contrary, Hawking argued that his disabilities helped him in some ways.
To combat disability-based filicide, society must establish that disability does not decrease someone’s worth. All lives carry intrinsic value, a truth I hold to be self-evident.
Journalists should ensure that filicide coverage does not unfairly favor the caregiver. Activists must educate themselves about ableism more. Additional resources include the 5C-wide Disability, Illness and Difference Alliance, Crip Camp, Disability Visibility Project and the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability (subscribe to their emailing list for events), founded by disability historian Paul K. Longmore CG ’84.
Activists must bring more attention to disability issues, including filicide. They should attend Disability Day of Mourning vigils to honor disabled filicide victims. They must value the perspectives of people with disabilities and center them in their activism.
If you’ve read about acts of filicide against disabled individuals before, would you have reacted the same way if the victim were able-bodied? If not, I urge you to think about why, educate yourself more with the resources listed above and commit to treating the people with disabilities in your life more equitably.
Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is a pre-med student from Los Angeles, California. In sixth grade, she discovered ASAN and other autistic advocacy groups while searching for a YouTube video of someone playing a piece she was learning on the violin.