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Winter Views
by Kathleen Rose Winter

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Human Terri

When does a human being become a vegetable? Who decides when that person slips from a human being into an item comparable to something in a store's produce section? Other human beings, and the government, make this decision, and it is wrong. This whole question of deciding the worth of a human being based on someone's perception of that individual's quality of life is wrong. Letting Terri die of hunger and thirst set a dangerous precedent for the extermination of people with disabilities. It is cruel and unusual punishment for someone who was guilty of nothing.

Behind the whole question of the life of Terri Schiavo, her 'quality of life', is an ugly part of this society's arrogant view of persons with disabilities. Instead of the 'right' to die, could she not have received the 'right' to live? As a person with a disability, who is wheelchair mobile, I face this ugly truth each day. I want the right to live. The right to healthcare, employment and housing. But what I see instead is President Bush cutting housing for the disabled and the courts upholding the torture of a human being.

When I saw the pictures of Terri smiling while her mother kissed her, I could see the vitality and validity of her life-her soul. My life and those of other disabled people is not different from Terri's, because we are responsive, able to talk or express ourselves, and she was not. We are all human. No one can judge the way a person expresses themselves or what they feel inside. And government certainly should not sanction the cruel and inhumane murder of someone based on the perception of a society that does not value the worth, validity or humanity of a disabled persons' life.

The word 'invalid' says it all. Our society pronounces it with the emphasis on the first syllable. Webster's New Revised Dictionary defines it as 'A chronically sick or disabled person. Disabled by disease or injury'. The other definition places the emphasis on the second syllable, and is defined as 'Not factually or legally valid ... unsound.' The first definition is a word made up to suit the perception of this society. Both pronunciations are close enough to equate a person with a disability as not valid, void, empty of humanity. Apparently this society feels the same way because they did something to Terri that isn't done to people sentenced to death. The condemned prisoner gets a last meal, not the misfortune of being legally denied food and water until death occurs.

Every day, several times a day, I experience the most demoralizing comments, questions, and assumptions about my life and its validity. People have come to me and said, 'Good morning! You sure are a brave person. If I were you, I couldn't handle it. I would kill myself.' When I ride the lift bus people comment openly about me as if I am invisible. If I am with someone they ask that person if they are my nurse or 'helper'. People touch me in obscene, inappropriate, aggressive ways without my permission, insisting they are helping me. When I politely insist on my independence, I am viewed as mean or bitter. It seems as if people are more comfortable with their perception of me as not being a whole human being. Overall I am seen as helpless with no humanity; invisible. Historically many populations try to insist on their validity as human beings. Some people understand the origin of the de-humanizing stereotypes and work to dispel them. But what of the person with the disability?

Terri Schiavo had a severe disability. She was a human being with a soul. I want everyone reading this to think about being starved to death and dying of thirst. Try to make it six hours without eating and drinking and you'll probably say, 'I'm starving to death'. How innocent those words seem when spoken with money and food available to you. Now think of Terri starving to death and realize that she was starving due to the opinions of other human beings and the United States government. She was there wondering why she felt so bad; why she felt weak and sick—why her lips were cracked and why no one would bring her a simple drink of water. She was there wondering why she was dying. Yes, I can think for her to give her life, especially if others disavow her humanity to give her death. The truth is she was being murdered; when an autopsy is done, it will find that she died of hunger and dehydration. As a human being she felt every bit of the pain that a human experiences when he or she experiences that kind of death. She was tortured to death. There are laws, international and national, which prohibit this torture. Why does it not extend to someone with a disability? No one has the legal or moral right to decide on the quality of someone else's life to the point that they can end that person's life with torture.

As a person with a disability, I am frightened. This country has a track record of dehumanizing people. It is a historical fact that Africans, Natives, and Jewish people were dehumanized, in order to justify the enslaving and genocide of them as a whole population. In America, the lack of human worth for Africans and Natives was written into law and thus justified genocide. The world sat by and watched the genocide of three million Armenians in 1915 and six millions Jewish people during World War II. Am I to wait for my turn as a person with a disability?

I hope that this world comes to the realization that disability is a natural part of life. People fear it to the point of denial. The most drastic of denial is denying the existence and humanity of people with disabilities to the point of invisibility. If something that is supposed to be invisible, attempts visibility, it is erased. I do not want to be erased. Hopefully, as this country comes to realize that in approximately 15 years, one half of its population is going to be disabled in some way, the humanity and of people with disabilities will be realized and respected.

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