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The American Special Education System Helps Us Understand the Pitfalls Inherent in Assisted Suicide

by | Feb 16, 2024

By Meghan Schrader

Meghan Schrader

Editor’s note. Meghan is an autistic person who is an instructor at E4 Texas – University of Texas (Austin) and an EPC-USA board member.
 
The coercion I experienced when I was enrolled in the Special Education system are what drives much of my staunch opposition to assisted suicide. It’s my observation of the systemic oppression enabled by that system that makes me say, “no, assisted suicide is not a good idea” no matter what pro-euthanasia argument I’m confronted with.

When I talk about my experiences in the Special Education system, I am not comparing having a learning impairment to having cancer, and I am not saying, “Oh, well, I suffered so you have to do it too.” I am not operating from a petty grudge along the lines of, “My Kindergarten teacher held my hand-crafted duck project up in front of the class and told them it was a bad duck because I didn’t follow her directions correctly, and so you have to die a painful death.”

What I mean is that there are instructive parallels between how the Special Education system works and the systemic oppression in the medical system, and that people in both systems engage in coercion of subjugated people. That makes assisted suicide unfair to subjugated people.

In Special Education disputes about how to educate disabled children, school districts typically hold most of the cards. School systems will fight tooth and nail to avoid paying for services for disabled kids, no matter how badly not having those services harms the child.

Wealthy, privileged communities will happily build multi-million dollar playgrounds for predominately able-bodied children while loudly complaining about the money spent on accommodating disabled students, no matter what consequences students with disabilities experience as a result of not having those services. Similarly, it’s clear that some government and private healthcare programs will fund lots of things for able-bodied people before taking care of disabled people’s basic needs. 

School systems have engaged in inordinate amounts of expensive legal maneuvering to force disabled students to stay in public schools where they are subjected to daily toxic stress so severe that it leads to serious physical and mental health problems, just as futile care impositions manipulate the medical system to force disabled people to die. What special education students often experience is a phenomenon that disability studies scholar Paul Longmore would call a “social death”: The person metaphorically “dies” because systemic oppression constrains equal participation in the activities that anyone would want to engage in-education, jobs, community engagement, etc.

It’s pretty much the same thing with utilitarian bioethics, Quality Adjusted Life Years, forced DNRs and “termination without request or consent” and euthanasia in some countries. There’s a system that enables powerful people to bully disenfranchised persons. This systemic bullying of disabled people has seeped into pretty much all social institutions and drives much of our public discourse, making it easier for people in power to enact policies that literally kill disabled people. 

Peter Singer is a professor at Princeton who tells disabled people to kill ourselves so that the money spent accommodating us can be sent to third world countries, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Because of thinking like Singer’s, doctors in states with futile care laws bully the families of dying and severely disabled people to withdraw life-sustaining care from a loved one, and there’s nothing they can do about that, either.

The doctors are in control, and no matter what emotional, financial, or physical consequences it has for the patient and her loved ones. Are disability rights activists really supposed to believe that doctors aren’t going to try to force people to die by assisted suicide?

The Special Education and medical systems also share commonalities in respect to the varying motivations for why people decide to pursue careers in those systems. Now, just as some disabled people are fortunate to have access to skilled and caring doctors, I did have some absolutely amazing teachers whose influence was critical in me accepting my disability, relying on my strengths and conscientiously working towards my goals. Those teachers loved me-they always had a hug for me, they valued my intelligence, they were more than happy to provide accommodations for my learning impairment. Similarly, many doctors are dedicated professionals who will do anything to care for their patients.

But, not everyone goes into service professions out of love. Some special education teachers join that field because they like to be in charge of smaller, weaker people, just as some doctors go into the medical profession out of an arrogant desire to control sick people.

For instance, I once had a Special Education teacher who saw literally everything I did, even my smallest and most innocuous quirks, as “behavior.” She would punish me for something as small as fidgeting in my chair or not looking at her in the eye. At one point during mud season there was a group of bullies who would come up to me on the playground and repeatedly push me into the mud. I remember her angrily helping me take off my soiled jacket and jeans, and articulating what was essentially a utilitarian philosophy about her job:

“I have multiple students that I have to be responsible for, and now I have to spend my time helping you take off your clothes,” she complained. This is essentially what some disabled people experience from nurses in hospitals-cleaning out bed pans is the nurses’s job, but the nurse is annoyed that they actually have to do that.

Neither the Special Education system nor the medical system can be trusted to implement legal procedures in a way that is fair to disenfranchised people, and that makes assisted suicide an unjust social policy. 

When I was growing up, I was fully aware that there were laws called Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But I also saw people blatantly violate those laws in spirit while using loopholes to essentially negate them. For instance, for whatever reason my high school Special Education team didn’t care that I was an honors student; they were dead set on forcing me not to take college preparatory classes or exams, because “Special Education students don’t go to college.”

When I did those things anyway, they made sure that I suffered as much as possible. For instance, in addition to multiple other things my high school guidance counselor did to make the college application process miserable for me, he insisted on proctoring one of my college entrance exams. Even though my accommodations proscribed at quiet environment for ADHD, he made sure to tap papers against his desk, run his printer, and create various other sources of noise. When I asked him to stop, he said, “I’m only required to avoid unnecessary noise. I’m not making unnecessary noise. Other students have to deal with pencils scratching on paper and people breathing.”

The toxic stress of being obliged to have my test proctored by this man was really, really unfair to me, but there was nothing I could do about that; the law allowed schools to pick whichever proctors they wanted to give tests to students, and if the evil guidance counselor wanted to force me to sit alone in a room with him for hours so that he could do disparaging things to me during a college entrance exam, well, tough crap.

What I experienced was essentially the non-lethal equivalent of what happened to Roger Foley. The guy was denied accommodations that he needed to live on his own, was confined to a hospital, and then was put in a room alone with a bioethicist who urged him to ask to be killed. Similarly, Canadian law did not allow Alan Nichols family to protect him.

In the Netherlands, an advanced request for euthanasia led to a woman being held down and euthanized when she was clearly saying “no.” As a former Special Education student who was pressured to drop out of high school, I could see those scenarios coming, and that’s why I’ve always taken the position on assisted suicide that I do now.

I am sympathetic to people who want to legalize assisted suicide because they’ve had a deeply traumatic experience or they have no firsthand knowledge of how it will affect some people. It is not ethical for right to die activists to exacerbate already violent and unpredictable mechanisms of oppression and injustice so that they can die with a glass of rose champagne in their hand.

We live in a society where the able-bodied majority feels entitled to have what it wants at disabled people’s expense, and assisted suicide is just a very extreme form of that trend. Assisted suicide puts disabled people in a position in which it isn’t enough for us to be denied education and employment or endure various other forms of abuse, we also have to have our suicides turned into a “medical procedure” and maybe even be coerced into doing that so that the proponents can “chart their own end of life journeys.” That’s privileged arrogance. 

Disabled opponents of assisted suicide are not asking the proponents to die alone and in agony; we are simply asking that they use and improve the other multiple other techniques available to treat pain and disability at the end of life. We are asking that they give up some of the control they’d like to have so that disabled people do not experience even more vicious forms of oppression then we already do. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask to me.

Editor’s note. This appeared on the webpage of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition and is reposted with permission.

Categories: Assisted Suicide