Getting It Right

My fellow disability rights blogger, Moggy, brought this to my attention today.

In a recent Slate Magazine obituary of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, writer and composer Matthew Guerrieri absent-mindedly notes that the composer’s disabled mother was “euthanized” by the Nazis. I am choosing to think of Mr. Guerrieri as “absent-minded” rather than being overtly insensitive or worse. Beginning with the infamous T4 project (which was launched on the same day Hitler invaded Poland) the third Reich rounded up people with disabilities and forcibly removed them to state hospitals where they were subsequently gassed. The term for this is “execution” and not “euthanasia” and one would like to imagine that a talented composer like Mr. Guerrieri knows the difference.

German construction workers are still today finding the mass graves of people with disabilities whose remains were buried in the woods behind the hospitals.

Murder will out.

Perhaps you may be wondering why I labor over such a dark subject on this Christmas Eve?

The most obvious answer is that people with disabilities are still struggling for their rights all over the globe. As with all human rights struggles the language we employ really matters.

There is a lot of “ableism” out there in normative society where the temporarily abled imagine that physical perfection is the sine qua non of true life. Ableists think that “the disabled” are living lives of quiet desperation.

In turn, I’m a big fan of the organization Not Dead Yet which fights to make certain that the general public understands that people with disabilities are living rewarding lives, even in the face of the physical and emotional challenges that accompany so many disabilities. 

Although I am essentially a left of center Democrat I sided with President George W. Bush when he attempted to rally Congress in the defense of Terry Schiavo who, as you will recall, was slowly starved to death under the banner of “euthanasia”.

I will never forget that Adolph Hitler called people with disabilities “useless eaters” and I’ll never forget that we have an unjust medical care system in the U.S. which routinely denies appropriate and necessary medical care to the poor.

I can’t use the words euthanasia and disability in a paratactic way. I think that ableist assumptions about the lives of the disabled and the social inequities that surround disability are terrifying.

I suppose you could say I’m having a “blue Christmas” like those folks who were featured this morning on NPR. They ran a story today on “Morning Edition” about an Episcopal church in Washington, DC where the pastor has created a Christmas service for people who are experiencing real grief during the holidays. My hat’s off to those folks. People of conscience feel the pain of life on this blue planet, and for sensitive souls the terrible holiday music and commodified cheer is especially hard to take.

But really, I mean it: I’m not having a blue Christmas. I just want to share the expectation that human rights are supported without exception today and always.

And as Tiny Tim would say: “God bless us, one and all.”


Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

0 thoughts on “Getting It Right”

  1. Steve,
    First of all, apologies for the lateness of this reply—I was out of commission for much of the last three weeks, and just read your post now.
    “Euthanize” wasn’t actually absent-minded at all—I thought about the proper word fairly hard—but, in retrospect, I would have gone with another term: while I think most readers understood what I was getting at by using it, the couple of readers who tripped over it did so rather badly.
    What I was trying to convey was the bleak and bureaucratic nature of Stockhausen’s mother’s end (in her case, she was not gassed, but died by lethal injection in the hospital where she had already been confined for some years), and “euthanize” seemed to carry the requisite overtones of deliberateness and dispassion. Also, given that to euthanize someone or something is almost always only seen in regard to animals, I’ve always found that using the term in regard to people immediately invests it with more cold and sinister connotations. (It’s entirely possible that I was distracted by the fact that anything involving the Nazis carries with it cold and sinister connotations.) For me, “executed” imples due process, even if that process has been unjustly perverted, and “eliminated” has, unfortunately, been ruined by one too many Hollywood villains.
    Even the term “euthanasia” has gone through an interesting evolution, to my ear—while it’s still apparently not pejorative enough for opponents, in some way, it’s become too pejorative for supporters, who I’ve noticed now opt much more for “right-to-die” and similar variants. (Even dogs are now “put to sleep.”)
    I think this is more than just idle speculation—such political and moral arguments are framed quite a lot (probably more than we’d like to admit) by choice of terminology and conscious or unconscious shifts in the overtones of such terminology. I wonder if my own difficulty in finding the right word reflects my own somewhat ambivalent view of euthanasia itself: while I think that anyone’s rational, conscious decision to end their own life should be respected, I personally plan to go not at all gently into that good night.
    This is certainly a bit long-winded as far as justifications go! But since you took so much time to put down your own reactions, I wanted to pay the small respect of trying to explain myself. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, and believe me when I say that the last thing I wanted to do was soft-pedal the woman’s undeserved fate; rather, I was attempting, however imprecisely, to highlight what I found to be the sad and lonely aspect of her particular circumstance.


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