Thursday, August 22, 2013

You've Got (Hate) Mail: Max Begley and the Tragedy of Hate Towards People with Disabilities

If we as a society are going to evolve to be more loving and less prejudiced, we need to realize that hate directed towards any one identity group does terrible damage to every identity group. I was deeply disturbed and saddened upon reading the hateful letter directed at an autistic boy and his family in Canada. A lot of media attention and awareness efforts are dedicated to the horrors of racial slurs… but ableist slurs should be treated with the same seriousness, because people with disabilities are also experiencing the struggle of confronting words and actions that degrade our community. Earlier this week, the grandmother of 13-year-old autistic boy Max Begley received the letter below: The anonymous letter has left Max’s family in shock and fear. The letter’s author even states to take “his non-retarded body parts and donate them to science” because he is a hindrance to everyone.” Attitudes like this are a threat to people with and without disabilities, because they contribute to a culture of deciding for others what constitutes a worthy life. The Begleys are hoping to identify the writer and charge “One Pissed Off Mother” for her actions. However, as of yesterday, Ontario police said the letter did not qualify as a hate crime, but stated that it is being taken very seriously nonetheless. Personally, I think the police have made a grave mistake in not classifying the letter as a hate crime. The definition of a hate crime is a crime “motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, usually involving violence”. Yes, people with disabilities are part of that “other” and encouraging someone to move or “euthanize” their son is certainly violent rhetoric. If behavior like this is ever going to stop, people need to stop breezing through Huffington Post calling this incident “a shame” and call it out for what it is: a threat directed at another person just for being who he is, motivated by bias, hatred, and misguided fear. I feel sad that the writer was raised in such a narrow-minded environment, and has clearly paid the price by becoming ignorant. Ignorance is often the product of that which others teach us, and sometimes, we can’t blame people for being ignorant. However, there is a line. Some lessons should be understood by anyone with a beating heart, and basic human respect is one of them. A person doesn’t have to be highly educated to appreciate the value of another person. We cannot make excuses for this woman, or minimize her actions based on the notion that she was too ignorant to know better. Maybe she has never met a person with a disability. But people with disabilities are people, other human beings, and we surely have met, and loved another human being. Furthermore, the writer of this letter is a mother, and by virtue of loving a child, deeply and indescribably as parents do, she should know better than to degrade another mother’s son. The writer states that Max “scares the hell out of her ‘normal’ children.” That, ma’m is what happens when we teach our children fear. Perhaps your children would not be so scared if you taught them not to be afraid of people who are different than they are. Going through life afraid of what we don’t understand is no way to live. And if you ever read this, I want you to know that Max Begley’s mother once cradled her child as you did, and saw the world in his eyes. Words like yours I am sure put daggers through her heart, belittled the precious person in whom she has invested her life. How would you feel if someone did that to your kid? I am sure you would think of when you cradled your child and saw the world in his eyes. So, truly, you and your child, and Max and his mom are not so different after all. 
The article about the Toronto police response can be found here

Author's Note: Unfortunately, Jim Begley (Max's dad) is quoted as saying that "“A person that's that crazy or demented who would fabricate something like that ... it leads me to believe that they're very dangerous, and right now I'm scared for my son's safety.“
This quote suggests that people with mental illnesses are responsible for the incident, perpetuating the myth that people with mental illnesses are violent, dangerous, or scary. In reality, people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. Jim Begley's views do not represent my own. The Examiner article was posted only to give background on Max's story, and to provide the letter's full text. Readers of The Examiner article should be conscious that blaming people with mental illnesses for this horrible act is ableist. If we want to fight ableism, we must do it by offering people with all types of disabilities respect. The letter to Max's is not the work of someone with a mental illness. It is the work of a hateful, ignorant person.


  1. Kids need to be exposed to people with differences today. Perhaps it will teach them to respect not only peer victims of our sick environment but to take precautions with their own bodies.

    That hateful mom will sing a different tune once her own family hits the wall.

  2. I hope you don't mind me commenting on a post that's several years old. I only came across your blog a few days ago and have been reading the back entries.

    It concerns me that even an article about ableism ignores the blatant ableism in an article it links to. Maybe that's just because there's just too much ableism to call it all out; still, I'd like to point out the issue for anyone else who reads old blog entries.

    The Examiner article includes the following quote from Jim Begley (Max's father): “A person that's that crazy or demented who would fabricate something like that ... it leads me to believe that they're very dangerous, and right now I'm scared for my son's safety.“

    The thing is, the vast majority of people who are liars, hateful, or violent have neither mental illness nor dementia. Furthermore, the majority of people with mental illnesses or dementia are not dangerous. In fact, these people are much more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than to be the perpetrator.

    The assumption that the letter-writer must have had mental illness or dementia is a product of the stigma surrounding these conditions. In other words, it's ableist.

    1. Hi Martin,
      I totally agree with you that Jim Begley's statement is ignorant. I do not believe that people with mental illnesses are dangerous or violent. The letter writer does not represent people with mental illness. Whoever wrote the letter to Max is just hateful, period. Jim Begley's views do not represent mine and I linked to the article just to give people background on what happened to Max. Unfortunately, most news articles on this include Jim's quote. I will be sure to add an author's note clarifying that I do not support his statement

    2. Thank you Martin for helping me make a better space for all