16 September 2013

People's Coverage of Issy Stapleton's Story

Trigger warning: Discussion of violence against disabled people, murder of disabled people, mention of rape, ableism, and ableist rhetoric about violence. 

Note: I noticed it's actually Issy (with a y). I wrote Issi (with an i). I apologize for my inability to spell.


This is from a letter that I wrote to an editor of People magazine who is also a Georgetown alumn:

I am currently writing regarding People's coverage of the Issy Stapleton case. Issy's mother is currently facing charges of attempted murder, and is being held without bail in the case while Issy is hospitalized with injuries sustained during the attempted murder.

The magazine currently on news stands across the country contains a blurb on the cover that reads, "Autism, Violence & Despair: A Mother's Breaking Point." It breaks my heart and those of so many people in the autistic and disabled communities to continually see such rhetoric in the news, in popular media, and in public discourse.

It is incredibly common for journalists and policymakers alike to assert directly or imply through their reporting and language that when parents kill or attempt to kill their disabled children, it is because the child was a burden on the family, because the child didn't receive services -- any reason other than that the parent decided to harm their child. 

The disparity is very striking when you read coverage of killings and attempted killings of non-disabled children by their parents. Right or wrong, headlines decry such parents as monsters and their actions as evil. Yet when the victim is disabled, as in Issi's case, we are urged to be sympathetic to the aggressor rather than to the victim. The media so often plays directly into this attitude by reporting on all of the reasons that the parents were supposedly overwhelmed and stressed and therefore justified in harming their children.

These cases happen all the time. They are not novel or isolated. They are connected by a powerful and pervasive set of ideas that form the public attitude toward disability -- that disabled people are burdens on society and their families, that disability means less quality of life and less ability to be happy, that it is better to be dead than disabled, that when disabled people are murdered, it is out of mercy and love, and it is our lives that are tragic and not our murders.

These stories should be talked about. We don't want our victims to be forgotten. But I am continually appalled and profoundly saddened to see that the pattern of reporting about these cases remains the same -- always offering justifications and excuses for murder while suggesting, horrifyingly, that if I object to this type of coverage, I am somehow lacking in empathy. I think it is not unreasonable to believe that victims of violence deserve empathy, but the kind of rhetoric exemplified on the cover of People right now only serves to constantly reinforce that I and people like me are not in fact worthy of the same consideration as non-disabled victims of murder and other types of violence. Instead, it is the perpetrators who should receive sympathy. 

Only this week, yet another case following the same pattern has hit the news. Two children, Jaelen and Faith Edge, were found dead after their mother killed both of them and made an apparent attempt at suicide. One of the children was autistic, and much of the reporting around this case too has fallen into the same old pattern of blaming autism and the supposed burden of living with an autistic child as the cause behind the violence.

I cannot go more than a few weeks without hearing of another case in which a disabled person -- child, youth, or adult -- somewhere in the world has been murdered, raped, or assaulted because of the attitude that disabled means less than. The media has a particular power to shape and influence rhetoric, and therefore ideas and attitudes. With this power comes great responsibility. I urge you to do everything that you can to combat this insidious and deadly trend in popular news reporting.

We deserve better. We deserve nothing less.


  1. Perfectly stated... Thank you for this...

  2. very well said. you are such a great voice in autism advocacy, Lydia! a real hero..
    pls update us if they actually get back to you. x

  3. Thank you. Beautifully written. I hope they publish, respond, and, most importantly, learn from your letter and report differently in the future.

  4. You said it perfectly. I absolutely agree 1000% percent. It sickens me and saddens me greatly that this has become something that happens so often. It must be changed.

  5. This letter is fantastic. My boyfriend and I are traveling to D.C. to see a comedian in Nov. and I'd like to buy you a coffee (or whatever you drink) if you're available.

    1. Shoot me an email -- lydia@autistichoya.com -- and we can try to make it happen!

  6. Beautifully written! I hope they read this and learn from it. I hope they publish a new article correcting themselves. On a desperate note, I absolutely love your blog! Keep up the awesome work!

  7. I am an autistic mom of an autistic daughter and I applaude your writings. Thank you for being our voice. It hurts so much to see the victims get thrown aside because they are disabled. We deserve equal rights and equal treatment. Again Thank you so much

  8. Thank you for your words, the words that I would have love to have said to many who forget who the victim was.

  9. As an NT mom of an Autistic daughter, I too applaud your letter. The coverage of Issy's near-murder sickens me... even more so because in the past, I might have been one of those voices saying, "Oh, that poor mother must have been so overburdened..." Now I know better. Did People magazine say Casey Anthony was overwhelmed with caring for Caylee and urge people to feel compassion for her?? Not a chance in hell.

    Thanks, Lydia.

  10. "Six months postoperatively, there was 90% reduction in tic frequency and 50% reduction in intensity. Additionally, he has shown improved ability to converse with his peers, participate in school activities, and even has improved nutritional status."

    Curing someone is the same as exterminating them apparently.

    1. First, wrong post.

      Second of all, what's your definition of "cure?" This gets rid of a behavior, but it not only doesn't address whatever underlying issue is going on, but it completely and purposely (recklessly, if not intentionally) avoids doing so. For all anyone knows, Kade could've had another serious health or sensory issue going on that will now not be addressed, and they've made him helpless to do so much as express himself. His own parents have effectively told him that 1) your body is not yours, it's ours to do what we want with, and 2) our convenience comes before whatever you need. If that's what cure looks like, sickness doesn't sound so bad.

  11. Nice letter!

    This is why only the most patient, loving, stable people should reproduce. Healthy children are a blessing...not a guarantee. If you're not willing/able to care for a disabled child, don't have kids! Anyone who could kill their child or commit suicide and leave their kids parent-less is lacking the basic decision-making skills and empathy needed to be a fit parent. To blame her actions on the child is like blaming a rape victim for wearing the wrong clothes.

    I don't think her actions were selfish or evil, but they were certainly indicative of emotional/cognitive/mental health problems and, above all, WRONG. I could never handle parenting a special needs child, therefore I'll never have kids. It's the responsible thing to do rather than expecting society to parent them for us.

    Would the media be spinning the same story if the perpetrator was a Black male or a poor Hispanic female? Doubt it.

    1. This is a back-handed "compliment".
      First of all, disability does not equate disease. You erroneously conflate the two. An autistic person, for example, is a perfectly healthy person if they don't have an illness or some other diagnosable health issue. Secondly, to post that you "could never handle parenting a special needs child" on an autistic advocate'sblog is just plain rude. It's unnecessary for this community to hear about your prejudice. All the same, do go ahead and get sterilized just incase.


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