Wendy Garland, a New Jersey woman with disabilities, died last week after her primary caregivers, her mother and sister, abused and neglected her. Helene Hutchinson and Florence Garland have been charged "with neglect of an elderly or disabled person." Garland, who had cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, had not received medical attention in over two years. She lived and died in a dilapidated, overheated room filled with roaches, trash and feces.
Her family waited more than two hours after discovery of her body to call 911. In an attempt to mask their abuse, her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew moved furniture and carried her from the 100-degree room she died in to the front door of the air-conditioned first floor. The house was a grim scene:
Police say both the first and second floors were infested with roaches, flying insects and rotting food...The toilet on the second floor was broken and full of feces, there was a bucket of urine on the floor in the bathroom and the shower area was filled with garbage, police said. In the victim's bedroom, the ceiling had collapsed and beams were visible.Wendy Garland’s death is evidence of the danger in assuming that related caretakers have their family member’s best interest in mind. Able-privileged caretakers, particularly those who are kin to the person they care for, are given latitude where it’s not deserved. Their “sacrifices” earn them the benefit of the doubt, and someone else’s disability becomes their “burden”. Caregivers and family of PWD are often centralized in conversations about disability, and some shift those discussions to themselves. This is ableist. While family members and caretakers can be both critiqued and praised in disability discourse, the focus should always be on the person with disabilities.
The death of Wendy Garland is horrific. Her abuse went unnoticed, unchecked because of ableism: societal devaluation of people with disabilities and misplaced trust in abled family members. Garland’s death is a direct result of abuse on the part of her caregivers, the people in her life that some want to canonize and position as her selfless saviors. Parents, partners, siblings and other folks taking care of persons with disabilities can be wonderful, but they are not necessarily helpful: they can hinder, they can neglect, they can abuse, they can hurt, they can kill.