Tracy Latimer, DISABILITY RIGHTS AND THE LEFT

Article excerpt

For disability-rights activists, the case of Tracy Latimer, murdered by her Saskatchewan father at the age of twelve, has been a long and painful affair. From the time of her murder in October, 1993 until the Supreme Court earlier this year upheld Robert Latimer's mandatory minimum sentence for second-degree murder, Canadians have been saturated by media coverage about the case. Few disability issues in recent memory have received such significant attention. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, it has consistently presented a biased picture and demonstrated profoundly disturbing attitudes towards people with disabilities. In effect, people with disabilities have been victimized twice: by the initial murder and, again, by the response of much of the community.

It should come as no surprise, then, that polls showed that a huge majority of the public thought that Robert Latimer was both justified in killing his daughter and received an unduly harsh sentence. Hundreds have marched in demonstrations in support of Robert Latimer. In some cases, protestors have carried signs saying "Latimer Did the Right Thing." The case is clearly of tremendous importance to people with disabilities: our very lives are at stake. Given the fact that the disability-rights movement is all but completely ignored by most on the social-movement Left, it is also vitally important that progressives have an adequate understanding of the case and its implications.

First, attention must be drawn to the question of perspective. When children without disabilities are murdered by their parents, such as the two sons of South Carolina mother Susan Smith, most of the media coverage focuses on the victimization of the children. In this case the media and the public immediately identified with Robert Latimer, notwithstanding his criminal acts. Clearly, for many, Tracy Latimer was not seen as a real child simply because she had a disability. For progressives, this should be problematic, as children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable of children and are far more likely to be physically and sexually abused. The very real need for better support services for parents of children with disabilities cannot in any way be used to excuse such abuse. Yet Tracy's perspective has largely been ignored.

Media Ignorance

This is all the more troubling because many Canadians clearly do not have a proper understanding of the basic facts of the case. An examination of public discussion websites such as those operated by CBC Newsworld or the letters to the editor of daily newspapers indicates a huge failure to comprehend the most elementary aspects of Tracy's life and the murder. Hence, we hear a litany of ignorant comments how cerebral palsy is a terminal illness (it is not) or about how much pain she was in (hotly contested), Of course, the average citizen was treated to a very biased media portrayal that constantly focused on Tracy's "severe" disabilities without placing it within the context of the tens of thousands of Canadian children and adults successfully living happy and productive lives with identical or more severe disabilities. In other words, the voices of people with disabilities were rarely heard and instead we were treated to insulting stereotypes.

Ironically, some of the most pro-Tracy coverage has appeared in publications of the Right, such as Alberta Report and B.C. Report, which included the views of disability-rights advocates. While they undoubtedly have their own motivations, it is troubling that progressives have failed to see Tracy's slaying as a conventional murder case. And it calls into question their commitment to equality rights for people with disabilities. In general, progressives who actually understood the facts have raised two further objections: that this was euthanasia or a mercy-killing and that, even if unjustified, Robert Latimer's sentence was far too severe. Let us examine these propositions in turn. …