Monday, May 26, 2008

Disability Rights Feminism and the Dorothy Dixon Case

To see the photos of Dorothy Dixon and the people charged with contributing to her death, please see:

I think my thoughts regarding the connection between disability rights feminism and the Dorothy Dixon case are still forming, as this is both a simple and a very complicated case at the same time. Be warned...ramble zone....

I am fully aware that the case is in the midst of legal proceedings, so I think it's wise to be careful of what is accepted as legal fact, at this point in time. I find the following of particular interest:

It is a fact that a coroner's jury found that Dorothy was a victim of homicide. See

It is also a fact that the Alton police believe the likely motive for Dorothy's death was money---namely, her SSI check, which Michelle Riley reported collected from her each month in return for providing a place to live. See Note that this is what the police believe, not as specifically stated by people directly involved in the crime.

It is a fact that of the six people charged with contributing to Dorothy's death, four are age 18 or younger. What the heck? None of them told their schools what was going on? No one's teacher smelled anything odd? We just don't know.

It is a fact that Michelle Riley used to work at a Center for Independent Living---I would like to strongly emphasize here that *I* work for a Center for Independent Living. So do a number of FRIDA members and allies. We believe very strongly in providing people with the option to live as independently as possible in the community, with community-based supports. It is a legal (check out Olmstead) and human right. Abusers work all over the place, not just at CILs. An abuser could work at Morgan Stanley, or at Wal-Mart, or at a local hospital. Obviously, we have to find ways to shift social balance away from the abusers' ability to control victims, and we have to find ways to do that all over the place.

If I could hazard questions about this case, I would be asking: was race a factor in torturing Dorothy? Would the effects of arrest and incarceration play a role in how the household balanced out power? Why the disability-on-disability violence (one of the other housemates also had a developmental disability)?

Was Dorothy tortured because she was female, disabled, a mom and pregnant---and received SSI money others wanted? If so for ANY of those reasons, then that should be a hate crime.

A big issue I've noticed raised on feminist blogs in the past is whether a person with a disability is fit to be a good mother and whether they should be allowed to have children. Not only did Dorothy have one child, she was pregnant with a second. A lot of disability rights advocates would say you can't judge someone's ability to parent just because they have a disability. The stereotypes about what a parent should be in American society are very, very strong. We have plenty of moms with disabilities in FRIDA. Dorothy's surviving child was also starved---was that because of the alleged perpetrators, or because Dorothy couldn't parent? If she herself was allegedly forced to scavenge for food....sounds like she wouldn't have been given the chance to be a parent.

I hope readers are also pondering the whole SSI question. If you don't know what that is, it's a monthly check paid out to people with disabilities who are not working and earning above a certain level. The check varies in amount but is somewhere between $300 and $700 a month---which is expected to be an amount one can live on. I don't think so! People with disabilities who live on SSI are practically forced to live with others to survive on this check. If they make it out to live independently, they are forced to be poor unless they can get a job---and a lot of folks really can't.

The thing to consider here is that giving your SSI check to the head of the household for things like rent or sharing household income/expenses is a pretty common practice. Is that sharing collectively or financial abuse? Depends on whether the person with the SSI check is able to give consent and access that money by themselves if needed. If a person with a disability decides, as is their right, to do something with the money that contradicts that practice, things can get really ugly. It sounds like that's what the Alton police believe happened with Dorothy.

The SSI problem is pretty common and is definitely worth taking a look at through a feminist lens. Is it empowering to receive this check from the government? What if you are virtually unemployable? Do you have options? Do you have any control over your money? Do you have to support kids on this check? How does your family's culture play into things? Virginia Woolf's idea of a "room of one's own" here is just a total fantasy. Completely absurd. In fact, one of the greatest ways people with disabilities experience oppression is LACK OF PRIVACY!!!! Can you hear me in New Zealand?! LACK OF PRIVACY!!!

And a quick ADAPT digression: definitely don't get yourself into a nursing home, either---they'd take it all and only leave you with a measly $30 for all expenses. Yeah, that's the law.

So in processing all of this, I am also wondering, how do we prevent other Dorothys from dying in this way? What are the means by which we can jam up the cycle of vicious abuse of people with disabilities? Can disability and non-disability organizations handle this stuff? As I see it, this isn't just a problem for disability activists: this is EVERYONE's problem.

Finally, the question I really hope everyone out there is asking is: do I know a Dorothy Dixon? And how can I help?