Many of my Christian friends tell me they are struggling to enjoy the Christmas season this year because the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut are still so fresh in all our minds. This is one among many outcomes of this horrifying event, and I believe there will be countless more outcomes over the coming months and years. It is too early to know exactly how this event will change U.S. society, but it will be changed– much in the way 9/11 changed us collectively, forever.
Those of us who advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities of all kinds are watching the situation closely to guard against any kind of backlash, and to be sure all future policy actions are based on thoughtful reliance on evidence rather than knee-jerk reactions based on fear and prejudice.
As my colleague Jo Ann Simons notes below, we are just beginning this conversation on what we have learned from Newtown and where to go from here. I think her recent piece is worth revisiting on Christmas Eve, a time when Christians mark an important new beginning in their faith.
All of us at the Ruderman Family Foundation wish our Christian friends a Merry Christmas, hoping you can experience moments of peace and even joy during this holiday season.
Forced to Listen
By Jo Ann Simons, Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation; President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers
The television at my home– and in homes throughout the world– has been tuned into the nonstop coverage of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I feel it is my duty to listen to the news of the latest investigation of this horrific crime and watch the tributes to the victims. Somehow I feel like I am paying my respects, but mostly I am trying to comfort myself. I am trying to make sense of the senseless. I am trying to convince myself that my children are safe, our students and clients are safe, I am safe, and my country is safe. I am rationalizing that the likelihood of this kind of horrific crime occurring again is unlikely.
I am kidding myself. These kind of mass shootings are becoming more frequent and yet we have done nothing to reduce the availability of automatic weapons.
But this time something has happened. We have begun a discussion about mental illness, Asperger’s and autism. It has been thoughtful and meaningful. The world is learning what we already know: people with autism and Asperger’s are not prone to violence. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder, present from childhood. People with diagnoses on what is called the “autism spectrum” demonstrate compassion and empathy. They are wonderful sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. They live, play, learn and work successfully among us. In fact, one of the Sandy Hook children had autism and she was slaughtered with her aide and special education teacher.
We have also learned that mental illness usually develops in the late teen or early adult years, although it sometimes appears in childhood. Societal stigmas and the gaping lack of services make it difficult to identify and even more difficult to treat. Families feel hopeless and desperate and are often forced to turn to the only remedy available: the criminal justice system. In this system mental illness typically goes undiagnosed and almost always untreated.
A national discussion has begun and people who have never been part of it before are showing up to educate us. Doctors Sanjay Gupta and Mehmet Oz have begun teaching us about the minds of people with mental illness and about distinguishing mental illness from autism. They and many others are calling out for a better mental health system.
Are we listening?
–Jo Ann Simons