In the Burbank chapel, as attendees braced to hear the names of the dead, Pastor Ryan Chaddick welcomed the sparse crowd with familiarity.
“I’m here tonight, and we’re doing this,” said Chaddick, dressed simply in black, “because for some reason in 2023 we have to say to the world that killing disabled people is wrong.”
It seemed ridiculous, he said, to even have to announce that.
“But as long as disabled people are killed for being disabled,” he said, “I will rage against the night and we will light candles as protest and we will cuss and we will pray.”
Roughly a dozen people had trickled into the Burbank church on that frigid evening at the beginning of March to mark Disability Day of Mourning. To hear the names of people killed by parents and other relatives or caregivers. To listen to poems, songs, and readings about the outrage of disabled people losing their lives to those who were supposed to safeguard them.
For the Lutheran pastor, like many others in the chapel, the horror of those killings hits home. He is an autistic man, diagnosed in adulthood. He is also the father of autistic children, one of whose diagnosis set in motion his own. And his own path to understanding his daughters and himself led him to rethinking things in his life and his church.
“All of us — um, pretty sure, because I know you, or I’ve talked to you — everyone here is disabled or crazy,” Chaddick, 38, told the attendees with a slight smile and a nod before the readings began. “Welcome.”
In the United States, people with disabilities are nearly four times as likely to be a victim of a violent crime as those without disabilities, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis. And when they are victimized, people with disabilities are twice as likely as other people to suffer violence at the hands of a family member — including their parents.
More than a decade ago, Zoe Gross helped launch the annual, now-international event in reaction to the framing of news stories about one such killing. Gross, director of advocacy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, was appalled by news coverage after the killing of 22-year-old Sunnyvale resident George Hodgins, who was shot by his mother, who then shot herself.
The tone of the stories, she said, seemed sympathetic to the perpetrator — a sympathy that she found alarmingly scant for the disabled victim himself. One article, Gross remembered, quoted a mother saying, “Every mother I know who has a child with special needs has a moment just like that.”
It was “really normalizing this very upsetting, tragic thing that happened,” she said. “Saying that urge is in all parents with disabled children — I found so disturbing.”
Later that same month, a San Diego woman drowned her 4-year-old autistic son in a bathtub. Gross, in an essay, asked anyone who had said the murder of George Hodgins was understandable, anyone who had called it a “mercy killing,” to think about whether that San Diego mother had heard them.
During the pandemic, after his older daughter underwent an assessment and was found to be autistic, Chaddick and his wife began reading books about “what it’s like to be an autistic kiddo” — and found it jarringly familiar. So was a comedy special by Hannah Gadsby, describing experiences as a child before she was later diagnosed with autism as an adult.
Researchers have found that autism tends to cluster in families, although much remains unknown about its biological underpinnings. As Chaddick came to recognize himself as autistic, the pastor decided to pursue a formal diagnosis — a step that can be difficult for adults, who sometimes struggle to find specialists willing to diagnose adults at all.
Autism — a developmental disability that can affect how people think, communicate, interact and process sensory information — defies simple generalizations. There is no one way to be autistic, but for Chaddick, it means he struggles to parse exactly what people mean when they say they are fine, he said.
He wears ear buds to the grocery store to cut down on the overwhelming noise. About once a month, he has to go to the post office to collect the mail that accumulated, he said, because he forgot or neglected to go down to the mailbox.
But as a kid, “I wasn’t collecting trains and putting them all in a line, so it didn’t compute,” he said.
The process of getting his diagnosis forced him to talk about the most painful and alienating moments of his life, he said. Chaddick remembers at one point saying to his doctor, “I feel like I’m trying to prove to you how disabled I am.”
“He was like, ‘Well, let me assure you, you are definitely autistic.’”
One of the gifts of being autistic, Chaddick said, is “sometimes I don’t know how to not say the thing.”
“Not having the filter that other people do,” he said. “Sitting in spaces with people that are uncomfortable.”
That includes the heaviness of Disability Day of Mourning. “It’s a hard thing to invite people to, because there’s a lot in American consciousness that says, ‘Whistle by the graveyard,’” he said. “We’re intentionally trying to say, ‘Please don’t whistle. Please just stay here.’”
“Unless we can confront ableism,” he said, “it’s going to continue to hurt everyone.”
Inside the Burbank sanctuary, the names were read out on a recording. The faces of each of the dead appeared briefly on the screens flanking the chapel as their names were heard.
A toddler sticking out their tongue. A white-haired nonagenarian, her surgical mask pulled down to show a smile. A young woman who seemed to be posing for a selfie.
For some there was only a white rectangle, labeled “Photo Unavailable.” For others, a photo of a tombstone.
Ten minutes passed as the names were read — and those were only the ones added most recently to the list. There were too many names and too many nameless, the grim outlines of their stories drawn from news reports about people killed by family and caregivers around the world. Gross said the list, which is maintained online, is updated by a volunteer who checks news alerts.
Some articles say “the victim’s initials were this, or this was a girl of this age — that’s all we have to go on,” Gross said.
In the chapel, they were nonetheless recognized:
“Name unknown, age 5 months.”
“Name unknown, age 72.”
“Name unknown, age 6.”
Chaddick stepped forward again and invited the crowd, “as you’re able, if you’re able,” to come forward and light candles and plant them in containers filled with sand.
“None of those were mercy killings,” he said, before words seemed to fail him. “I have nothing else.”
As a singer strummed a guitar and sang “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” people began to trickle up to the front of the chapel. One by one, they lit candles and rooted them in the sand, building a tiny congregation of flames. A father walked up with his young son to light candles, then returned to the pew where they had been sitting, his arm draped around his child.
The screens that had borne the names and faces of the dead now lit up to show a person in a knit cap sitting in a car in Minnesota, reading out the words, “I am not a burden.”
“You were 9 years old. You had a life ahead of you. And then you didn’t. You were a person. Not a burden,” Emily Stoll, the former youth director at the church, read from the screens. “You were 24, or 10, or 15, or 40. All of you had lives ahead of you. And all of you were people, not burdens.”
Parenting is hard, Chaddick said, especially during a global pandemic. And like any parent, he has had challenges and frustrations along the way as the father of two girls, ages 4 and 6.
Figuring out how to teach tooth brushing was “a huge struggle” before they found a smartphone game that helped. Chaddick had to let go of wanting everyone to eat dinner together at a table, which often “doesn’t work for my family” because of their different needs, both sensory and dietary.
“But we watch shows while eating dinner together. And we laugh together. And we make messes together,” he said. “I don’t experience any of that as tragedy.”
The father who had attended the vigil with his young son was Konstantine Anthony, the mayor of Burbank. Anthony, who is autistic, said he had been attending Disability Day of Mourning events for years, and “unfortunately, every year since the vigil began, names have been added to the list.”
“It’s just absolutely devastating to know that there are still people in this world that consider disabled individuals as disposable,” he said.
Outside the church after the vigil, Chaddick greeted the mayor and thanked him and his son for attending. Anthony, looking toward his son fidgeting in the cold, told the pastor, “He said the event was sad, but the church was boring.”
They laughed together.
Gross said the annual vigils have multiplied and become more accepted among a broader range of disability groups over time. At first, she said, it was seen by some as a controversial event, one biased against parents.
“Which I always found a bit confusing,” she said, “because I don’t take these parents that murdered their children, as representative of all parents with disabled children.”
The pandemic has also underscored the ways in which people with disabilities are devalued, she said. Disability rights groups were outraged last year when the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was “encouraging news” that the majority of COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated people were occurring among people with four or more comorbidities — those who were “unwell to begin with.” The CDC director later apologized, but Gross said the incident underscored a set of beliefs that “really has permeated all levels of society.”
“A lot of what we’re doing with Day of Mourning is trying to push back against an attitude that people have unconsciously,” she said, which makes it harder to fight.
As Chaddick came to understand his daughters and himself as autistic, he also became more invested in the cause of disability justice. “Right now, in the church here it’s Lent,” he said, the period when Christians reflect and prepare for Easter. “The last couple of years have been like a Lent for me.”
He has rethought the wording of worship songs that use disability as a metaphor for sin, he said — even the famous line, “Was blind but now I see.” His church limits the volume of its music so that the chapel is not overstimulating for people sensitive to noise. A church reading group is now digesting “My Body is Not a Prayer Request,” a book about ableism in churches.
His Burbank church makes closed captioning available for services offered online, he said. He has gotten fidget spinners for children and adults who find them helpful, and his church is working on a grant application for an American Sign Language interpreter and to put together bags loaded with more accessibility tools for anyone who comes to worship.
“I’m now more aware,” he said. “It’s painful to see that I did not perceive these things before. But once you have, you can’t stop.”