High-Profile Cases Like Latimer Focus Attention: Disabled Vulnerable to Violence

by David Martin, Provincial Coordinator, Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities

(Winnipeg Free Press, 6 Thursday 1997)

Just over 20 years ago, people with disabilities across Canada came together and formed organizations to promote the rights of disabled citizens. Our struggles in the early years focused on achieving such advancements as accessible transportation, the right to attend mainstream schools, and access to buildings.

While many of these issues continue to challenge our movement, today we often are confronted by a much more serious question. Twenty years after our birth, the movement of people with disabilities is now contending with discussion about our fundamental right to live and about our right to receive equal legal protection from violence. Like many other minority groups it is becoming clear that people with disabilities are vulnerable to violence.

The most compelling symbol of this new fight has been Tracy Latimer. Since 1993, when she was murdered in Saskatchewan by her father, she has become a martyr to people with disabilities who are concerned about the respect we are receiving for our humanity. Tracy's tragic death has been a watershed event in the history of Canadians with disabilities. Her murder has awakened most people with disabilities from an apathy that had been caused by a decade of improvements in our quality of life.

Even before the Latimer case, however, there were signs of the life-and-death debates that were going to face the disability movement. The high profile Sue Rodriguez court challenge in BC should have warned people with disabilities about a worrisome change in public attitude. Rather than be shocked by her request for help to end her life, the public rallied around her and said, "Let's allow doctors to kill her, if that's what she wants."

Even the disabled persons movement threw its support behind Rodriguez. We did not see that we were jumping on the bandwagon that was promoting an idea that it was better to be dead than to be living with a disability. We were seduced by an erroneous proposition that freedom to choose death was more important than the protection of our life. In many ways, Rodriguez and the disability movement itself were providing fodder for a mind-set which helped Robert Latimer to kill his daughter.

Since Latimer, people with disabilities have been overwhelmed by case after case of disabled people being murdered by their parents or by a caregiver. We have also witnessed political parties, members of Parliament, and Manitoba's own Senator Sharon Carstairs promoting new laws that could weaken protection of the lives of vulnerable people, including many people with disabilities. It has been a dizzying, and scary, few years for the movement of people with disabilities, which was, after all, originally, founded to work on such uplifting things as installing curb cuts on city streets.

In light of the current attitudinal climate facing people with disabilities, we therefore must call for a complete and thorough investigation of the culpability of people who were in charge of St. Amant Centre during the death of Ronald Lambert. He was an 11-year old disabled resident of St. Amant who was killed in 1978 by an employee of the facility. The story recently became known because the man responsible for Lambert's death turned himself in to the police and has been sentenced to two years in jail for manslaughter.

The crime that remains unsolved in the St. Amant case is that the facility's management didn't inform police about Latimer's killer when he originally confessed to them in 1978. Didn't they think a confession to the killing of one of their residents was worth mentioning to authorities? Their negligent silence on the confession has covered up a murder for almost 20 years.

Instead of questioning such behavior, however, the justice system appears inclined to sweep the Lambert killing under the rug before the full truth is known. They are saying the Lambert case is closed unless new evidence comes forward to warrant further investigation. It is bewildering that a confession of killing and a possible coverup is not enought evidence to continue pursuing the case until answers are heard. Once again, the movement of people with disabilities is being forced to demand justice for a dead disabled child.

The only lesson that we can learn from this case so far is that the killer turned himself in and has accepted punishment for the awful crime he committed. He realized he had stolen the precious life from a disabled person for whom he was supposed to provide care. It is unfortunate that another high-profile murderer has not chosen to display similar courage and acceptance of guilt.

Something ominous is happening in the world of disabled people and its changing the role our movement must play in society. We must now fight to ensure society and the justice system are concerned about the violence which we are experiencing. Regrettably, this mission appears as if it has been placed on our movement's agenda whether we want it or not.