Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Could Gilberto Powell Have Been Your Son, Mister President?

Nearly every day I see stories in the media of people with disabilities being abused. (For example, the case of Ethan Saylor, the young man with Down Syndrome who was killed by police when he went to the cinema).   But I normally don't blog about them because I am not a rights activist - I'm more of solution-based peacenik, albeit a very determined one.

But today is different.  This morning, I received a message from a respected colleague, Eva Kittay.  Eva is a distinguished professor of moral philosophy at SUNY and she's also the mother of a young woman with cognitive disabilities.  Eva's work has strongly influenced my thinking about what makes us equal as humans... ALL of us, including those whose capacity to reason is seriously compromised.

Eva sent me a story about a young man with Down Syndrome in Miami Florida who had been beaten by the police.  What made this story so heartbreaking is that young Gilberto Powell (aged 22) is very, very vulnerable.  He was walking the short distance home from a friend's house when he was stopped by police.  Gilberto became afraid and tried to run home, but he was caught and beaten because police said they felt threatened by a 'bulge under the suspect's shirt'.  Gilberto was punched in the face and knocked to the ground.  His 'bulge' was torn from his body.  The 'bulge' turned out to be a colostomy bag.  When Gilberto's distraught mother implored the officer to explain how he didn't know her son had Down Syndrome, the policeman replied, "I'm not a medical doctor".

I was in the kitchen today, telling my husband this story.  He looked up and declared, "But everyone should rise up against the police - they should rise up just like they did for Trayvon Martin!"  Then I remembered Barak Obama's words in the Martin case, "When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." 

How many fathers in America would look at the image of Gilberto's Powell's bloody, bruised face with the same father's love and recognition of his 'son'? Would the President ever recognise someone with Down Syndrome as 'his son'? 

Eva Kittay's central thesis about the human worth of people with cognitive disabilities is the idea that "we are all some mother's child.  Relationships of caring form the conduits of worth.  We should also observe that the capacity to give care and to acknowledge the bonds forged through care to one are not merely a precondition for a ‘proper’ morality – characterised as practical moral reasoning.  Giving and acknowledging care invoke a moral reasoning.  Giving and acknowledging care invoke a moral power through which we respond to the intrinsic value of each individual.  It is the fountainhead of that worth.”  

Kittay explains to us why tears dampen our cheeks when we read how an innocent young man is beaten by police - it is not just for him that we we weep, it is for his mother.  We instantly recognise the familial bond of love in this family and when a terrible injustice is done, we feel what they feel.   “This is the dignity grounded in our common connection to others in our need for care, in our dependency and vulnerability and in the worth actualised when other beings with intrinsic worth devote themselves to our wellbeing…..each one of us, equally, is worthy of dignity, for we are all some mother’s child.” 

So, these stories of painful injustice are not just about THEM.  They are about US.  Gilberto Saylor could have been my son.  And Mr. President, he could have been your son, too.


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