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Romel W. Mackelprang: Discrimination against the disabled is worse that the disability itself

Reaction to the death of Izzy Tichenor demonstrated how ableism is pervasive in society.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brittany Tichenor-Cox, center, joined by her sister Jasmine Rhodes, right, speaks about her daughter Izzy Tichenor, Nov. 9, 2021. Hundreds joined the Tichenor family in mourning the death of 10-year-old Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor during a vigil at Foxboro Hollow Park in North Salt Lake on Tuesday.

The suicide of 10-year-old African American, autistic Isabella Tichenor was an avoidable tragedy. As a result, multiple public figures have spoken, local and national news stories have been published and aired condemning racism and bullying and experts have been gathered to investigate and address racism and discrimination.

Yet, while the press mentions Izzy’s autism, the ableism Izzy suffered is rarely addressed. Utah Jazz star Joe Ingles, father of an autistic child, the Jazz organization and disability advocates are rare exceptions. Neuroatypical people’s voices and contributions and voices are being ignored. Disability advocates are not included.

The November 12 Salt Lake Tribune editorial on Tichenor’s death provides a glimpse into pervasive ableism in society. It details a Department of Justice report that says that Davis School District has long ignored racial harassment and discrimination. Yet, the editorial only mentions the personal childhood struggles of autistic children while ignoring the pervasive ableism, discrimination and dehumanizing treatment to which neuroatypical children like Izzy as well as other disabled children, youth and adults routinely endure.

At the time of Izzy’s death, I was following a social media thread in which a group of parents expressed outrage that, when a parent asked the school district for transportation assistance for their child with a broken leg, the district’s offer would force the child to endure riding with students on the “special education” bus. Their incredulity struck fear in parents of one of those “special” children, knowing parents’ attitudes were mirrored in their children’s behaviors.

As a disabled man whose career has focused on disability rights, I offer four observations. First, like racism and sexism, the most significant challenges for disabled people are not internal but are grounded in how they are devalued and treated in society. Disabled children, youth and adults from all backgrounds are routinely subjected to ableist language, treatment and social policies that hurt them and impede their development.

Second, when opportunities are available and accessible, disabled people are valuable contributors to society. My research with disabled youth reveals that they like their lives and that impediments to their success are primarily external. Yet, my research has often been questioned by social service providers, educators and others who are surprised by the satisfaction children express.

Other research demonstrates that disabled employees are more dependable than nondisabled employees, yet the disability unemployment rate is astronomic and public policies prevent many from working.

A physically disabled friend has told me, “If I go to work, I will die.” He is fully capable, but if he starts working, he will lose government health insurance that covers essential medical care.

Third, most nondisabled portrayals stereotype disability as inherently bad. Disabled people are often objectified as inspirational figures who overcome their disabilities and inspire nondisabled people. They may be objects of pity and are commonly used to tug at heart strings for charity. Mass media routinely portrays them as threatening and dangerous, yet disabled people are far more likely to be victimized than to perpetrate. Disabled people deserve to be treated as subjects with worthwhile lives and experiences.

Fourth, there is pride and joy to be found in disability and disabled lives but, unlike ethnicity, religion and culture, most disabled children are raised in nondisabled families. Disability role models and mentors can be instrumental to children and their parents. In 2005, the organization “Aspies for Freedom” celebrated the first Autism Pride Day that has become an annual international annual event. The autism pride flag represents and celebrates neurodiversity.

The Utah Parent Center is a resource for the parents of autistic children. Autism-run organizations like Autism Shifts celebrate neurodiversity. The Utah Independent Living Center, administered and directed by disabled people for disabled people, exudes disability pride and is a safe place for autistic and other disabled people.

Effective responses to Isabella Tichenor’s death must send the message that all Black lives matter. In addition, nearly 2% of Utah’s live with autism. Confronting ableism and disability discrimination are key critical to the lives of the 11% of disabled Utah students and to preventing the deaths of more people like Izzy. Will we learn this important lesson?

Romel Mackelprang

Romel Mackelprang is semi-retired as a disability studies educator after 31 years at Eastern Washington University. He is originally from Utah and moved back five years ago. The fourth edition of his Disability text was published this month.

Note: This article uses terms disability first (e.g., disabled person) vs. person with disability language. Though controversial, the language is intentional and approaches disability as diversity. Just as we do not use terms like “person with femaleness” or “person with blackness,” the author avoids “person with disability,” and embraces an identity of disability.