A Wake Up Call: Catherine Frazee Speaks Out

[9 October 1997]

Why is the Latimer case important?

The case brought into focus clearly the very wide gap between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by the nondisabled majority. We are as content with our lives as is the nondisabled population. However, the nondisabled majority's perceptions about disablement are very distorted, seeing it as something greatly diminishing the quality of life. In cases like Latimer, we see where those stereotypes taken to the extreme can so distort people's understanding that many Canadians believe there was nothing wrong with what Latimer did. The only explanation for that view is that people feel confident that Tracy Latimer's life has far less value than a nondisabled life. This case, and more than the case, the public response to the case, served as a powerful wake up call for many in the disabled community. It conveyed to us how very precarious our status in society is, if a life can be taken and there is a kind of public endorsement of that act. It forced us to realize we all have to be involved in fighting this dangerous threat to our very lives.

What should our message be and how should we convey it?

Our principle message has to be one affirming our humanity—that it cannot be disregarded, diminished, devalued by persons who have no insight into the disability experience.

The nondisabled population in this case is most guilty of a colossal failure of the imagination. People you know often say to a disabled person, "I can't imagine how you cope." The inability to imagine what the

disability experience is all about is translated into a kind of collective mythology that a person with disability lives a tragic life, marked by deprivation and suffering. That is simply not so and we have a responsibility to communicate that more and more daringly. We have to find more and more creative ways to express the positive powerful features of the disability experience and then to communicate these in every possible way so that people finally get an understanding of it.

We have to be aware of the perspective the media is projecting and to challenge it with an alternative. We have to be mindful there are people who believe that what Robert Latimer did was right and/or that he should not be sent to prison. We don't get very far taking a position of indignant outrage, when we are confronted with people who believe differently than us. We have to be sensitive, persistent, and very persuasive in attempting to bring people to an alternate point of view. We also have to make the links for people. There is a tremendous irony in that we have all the allies in the world when we want to remove ourselves from the planet but very few allies when demanding that our human rights be respected.

How will the Latimer case end?

I am reluctant to make any prediction. In the Latimer case two courts have been operating: the court of law and public opinion. I wouldn't want to speculate on what the Supreme Court will do. In the court of public opinion, I am hopeful we will see a more balanced presentation of the issue. It will be a major victory, if we can at least have our message heard in the court of public opinion. That at least would be a step forward toward a greater understanding and a possible victory at some time in the future. Hopefully we can lay the foundation for the further work we must do.

Why is Austin Bastable's assisted suicide cited so often in discussion of the Latimer case?

In any debate people are always anxious to find individuals on the opposite side of the debate. In this debate, the nondisabled population is only too happy to find persons with disabilities who share the view that our lives are worth nothing and that we would be better off dead. In this case, we saw a great deal of attention being paid to Austin Bastable and his choice to commit suicide. It "proved the case" for those who support Robert Latimer and for those who seek the legalization of assisted suicide, although the two issues are quite different. Our position being, of course, that Latimer's act was an act of homicide. Still the premise that underlies the public response to these is the same premise—that a person is better of dead than severely disabled.

What I think is particularly important about the Bastable case is that within our community we have to be aware of the fact that there are disabled people who do support Latimer and who certainly did support Austin Bastable, that he ought to have had the right to chose when and how to end his life. When you are very very vulnerable and very very depressed and you have been programmed, as it were, to believe that disability renders life not worth living, then you will make the kind of "choice" that Austin Bastable made. What we have to realize is that as an oppressed group in society we have been bombarded with messages, not just by the broadcast media, but by virtually every person we encounter in our day to day lives, that having a disability is a tragedy, a highly negatively charged phenomenon. To be quite candid most of us spend a great deal of our lives believing that. We have to remember that there really isn't a choice when there is such a pervasive set of negative messages, values and conditions in society really shaping that choice. It is my firm belief that someone like Austin Bastable simply didn't have the support, the positive experiences, the time to work through the issues and to come out on the other side of it and declare, as many of us have, that our lives are extremely rich and gratifying and we have no desire to end them simply because we have a disability. That takes time, support and a good measure of pure luck:—the luck of circumstance of having the resources to live comfortably with a disability. We don't know all the details of Austin Bastable's life, but I think from what I have been able to glean from the information available about his life that he had very little choice but to believe in the end that his life was not worth living.

With our community history of advocating for choices for people with disabilities, it may seem inconsistent to oppose assisted suicide. I don't believe it is inconsistent. It is a very shallow understanding of choice that underlies the arguments in favor of legalizing assisted suicide. In our current social content one cannot make such choice freely.

Biographical Note

Catherine Frazee is the former Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and currently working as a mediator and human rights consultant. Ms. Frazee is a member of CCD's Human Rights Committee.