Imagine if you had to fight in a court of law in order to be permitted to move in with friends, go to work, and make basic decisions about your daily life. Jenny Hatch doesn’t have to imagine, because she just fought and won that battle for her basic liberties.
Hatch has volunteered for political campaigns, held down a job at a thrift shop, and shown a capacity to live independently. But because she has Down’s syndrome and an IQ of 52, her parents argued that she should be forced to continue living in a group home.
Hatch was held in group homes against her will. As her friend Jim Talbert testified, “She just kept saying she hates it here, she hates it here, ‘Please come get me.’” But under the law, she could not leave. It was a form of imprisonment enacted not as punishment but under the paternalistic auspices of “care.”
Fortunately, Jenny Hatch won her lawsuit. While the judge ruled that she needed guardians, her friends Jim Talbert and Kelly Morris were appointed to that role on a temporary basis. She was already seeking to live with them, and the judge has ruled that this guardianship should eventually give way to her independence.
In response to the ruling, Jenny Hatch said, “I’m so happy to go home today.” She should have been able to go home without needing to fight in court.
This ruling is a victory not just for disability rights, but for basic human rights. A victory for free association, a victory for freedom of movement, a victory for individual autonomy.
These basic rights have been repeatedly denied to people with disabilities. Some, like Jenny, are held against their will in group homes. In some state-funded group homes, staff sexually abuse the residents. A 2011 report by the New York Times examined hundreds of cases and found that “employees who sexually abused, beat or taunted residents were rarely fired, even after repeated offenses, and in many cases, were simply transferred to other group homes run by the state.”
Disabled women “are raped and abused at a rate at least twice that of the general population of women.” This epidemic of sexual violence has occurred alongside a long history of forced sterilization. Both the state and society have enabled a total assault on the bodily autonomy of women with disabilities.
These violations of individual rights are enabled by pernicious myths. There’s the myth that people with mental illnesses are violent and dangerous. There is the new baseless claim by Eustacia Cutler that autistic men like me are pedophiles.
But perhaps the foremost myth is that people with disabilities are in some sense not full, autonomous human beings. This myth says that we are not capable of deciding our own destinies. This myth was in full force as Jenny Hatch’s parents argued in court that she should not be allowed to choose where she lives and who she lives with.
The reality is that people with disabilities are human beings. Human beings are entitled to such rights as bodily autonomy, free association, and freedom of movement. Everyone deserves liberty, regardless of their abilities.
Nathan Goodman is a writer and activist living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has been involved in LGBT, feminist, anti-war, and prisoner solidarity organizing. In addition to writing at the Center for a Stateless Society, he blogs at Dissenting Leftist.