Disabled, yes, and unwilling to die for society's easy comfort

Meghan Schrader is an instructor and mentor at the E4Texas (Texas Center for Disability Studies) program at the University of Texas at Austin and is on the board of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition USA. She has a Master's degree in special education from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master's in Musicology from the University of New Hampshire. Her experience growing up with a learning disorder also inspired her to serve on the governing board of the Boston Autistic Self Advocacy Network in 2015 and to volunteer as an education advocate for disabled students in foster care. Her research exploring bioethical issues in respect to musical representations of disability in 1950s America was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. She is the recipient of the 2018-2019 Quell Foundation Fighter scholarship for people who have survived severe mental illness. Schrader agreed to chat with Charlie Camosy about what she sees as an intersectional danger zone being created between people with disabilities and euthanasia advocacy.

Charlie Camosy: Tell us a bit about your background, including your academic background, that got you interested in the interaction of disability and physician-assisted killing.

Meghan Schrader: The first reason that I so strongly oppose assisted suicide is the awareness of the systemic inequality that I imbibed growing up in the U.S. special education system. Throughout my education I was exposed to the sentiment that disabled students were an expensive burden on teachers, other students and communities. I saw very aggressive attempts by the public school system to restrict special ed students' access to academic opportunity and even the most basic academic accommodations. Before my junior year of high school in 2000, a bipartisan legislature in my state of Massachusetts lowered special education standards to save money. Students like me, who were performing well with our accommodations, were kicked out of special education.

It was a message to disabled young people that we were second-class citizens; it was an infliction of what disability studies scholar Paul Longmore would call a "social death" -- cutting disabled people off from opportunity in order to keep prevailing social systems in place.

Witnessing that oppression taught me that the able-bodied, neurotypical majority tends to feel that it can have what it wants at the expense of people with disabilities. Now the "right-to-die" movement is asking to exacerbate the worst form of oppression disabled people already experience -- so that they can "control" their own deaths. The thought of some oppressed disabled or terminally ill person being bullied into killing themselves fills me with righteous indignation.

What made me decide to study eugenics in my musicology research was finding Peter Singer's writings in college. I was struck by the similarity between his comparisons of disabled people to animals and the hate speech that I experienced from bullies growing up. My research was my way of answering people like that on behalf of myself and others with disabilities. I currently teach at a postsecondary program for people with intellectual disabilities at the University of Texas, where I provide lessons in ethics, independent living, the fine arts and peer support.

Camosy: It seems like Canada is a key place to focus on right now if we want to see what may be coming down the pike in this area. What's happening there?

Schrader: What's happening there right now constitutes psychological abuse and systemic violence against people with disabilities. As we know, doctors are legally allowed to suggest assisted suicide to any disabled patient that comes to them. What activists would call #DisabilityTwitter is filled with exclamations of distress by disabled Canadians who are heartbroken that their government would rather kill them than help them. I have an indigent Canadian friend with PTSD and severe chronic pain who was told to end her life with MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) on a suicide hotline.

She reached out to me and another Twitter user for help after that happened, and we helped talk her down from killing herself for several months. She eventually made it to a good hospital that treated her pain and mental health problems, but before that several doctors refused to treat her chronic pain, and she felt as though Canada's assisted suicide law was "a monkey on my back" urging her to die.

Camosy: What do you make of the fact that, while physical pain doesn't make the top-five reasons people request physician-assisted killing in Oregon, things like fear of loss of autonomy, fear of loss of enjoyable activities, and fear of being a burden on others do make the top five?

Schrader: Our culture is fixated on autonomy as the primary value for decision-making, but the concept of autonomy being used by assisted suicide proponents is drawn from the experiences of primarily able-bodied, upper middle class white people. In contrast, some disabled people have had to really fight to have any practical autonomy at all. The disability justice movement's conception of autonomy is similar to the idea of autonomy typically found in the Latino culture. Our understanding of autonomy tends to emphasize interdependence-autonomy with help, and autonomy experienced in relationship to the individual's interactions with her community. I think that if the mainstream culture emphasized interdependence more, some people might feel less motivated to die to avoid being a burden on others, or as a way of maintaining complete control over their own lives.

Camosy: What are the best ways faithful Catholics can resist this aspect of what Pope Francis calls our throwaway culture?

Schrader: I would encourage faithful Catholics to understand throwaway culture as being at the bottom end of a spectrum of oppression against persons with disabilities, and to work hard at addressing other disability rights concerns that fall on that spectrum. In addition to fighting against things like assisted suicide, make sure you are fighting for things like good employment and education for people with disabilities. Also, examine yourself to determine how whatever political ideology you embrace might potentially undermine the well-being of disabled people who are in danger of being "thrown away." Talk to disabled people, mentor us, and make policy decisions that put our needs first. Doing that will give disabled people the resources we need to resist the prevailing culture's efforts to throw us away.

Moreover, many disabled people have experienced trauma in their faith communities. So, make sure that you are always treating disabled people with love and respect. Some disabled people cannot enter certain places of worship because the buildings have architectural features that make them inaccessible to people with disabilities, even 33 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act. Make sure your church buildings are accessible to wheelchair users and other people with physical disabilities. Study how disability justice intersects with theology.

Advocate for your churches to include ministries focused on the needs and perspectives of people with disabilities. Keep intersectional justice in mind and listen to the voices of BIPOC and LGBT people with disabilities. Do not regard disability issues only through the lens of charity. Rather, consider how your congregations can be part of empowering people with disabilities to make choices other than assisted suicide. Do everything you can to give disabled people the tools to make decisions that will not only help us live, but to thrive.

This article was first published in the August 25, 2023, edition of The Pilot.