Imagine this: a 16 year old boy with autism kills another person. Can we hold them accountable? And if so, how severely? Similarly, a completely different scenario: a school excludes a girl with autism from a school trip. Should this be legal? IS this legal? The answers aren’t simple. It’s a complex, and, as we will see, controversial issue that can inspire many different views and emotions.
In yesterday’s post, we discussed the problems children with behavioural disabilities (such as autism, ADD or low intelligence) suffer from when it comes to education. The conclusion was that there wasn’t really any proper solution to those problems, a rather gloomy way to end the discussion. This post will instead focus on the problems relating to the justice system, and hopefully that will lead to some more positive conclusions.
To start with, almost every country has anti-discrimination laws, but that doesn’t mean they’re all equal. Not least does not every country interpret them in the exact same way, but quite importantly, many countries don’t officially include discrimination against disabled people in their laws at all. In fact, the only Western countries in which they exist are the UK, the US, Australia, and the Canadian state of Ontario (plus South Africa, depending on your definition of “the West”). Worse still, according to an Australian researcher named Karen O’Donnell, there have been exactly 0 disability-related cases in Australian courts that actually made use of the anti-discrimination law that has existed since 1992, despite the fact that there were plenty of cases brought to court.
This seems to give an answer already to the questions posed after the second scenario, of the autistic girl denied access to a school trip: yes, in most countries denying her access is legal, and even in those where it might not be, judges will rule in favour of the school’s decision. But whether that should be the case? Whether it should be allowed to deny a child that right to education based solely on their behavioural disability? That is something I will leave you to judge for yourself, because the combination of rights of the child and resources available to the school make that an almost impossible question to answer.
How about the first scenario, then? Should the boy be sentenced differently because of his disability, despite the seriousness of an offence such as murder? It is a question that opens up a whole lot of ethical and philosophical debates. Consider, for instance, the nature/nurture debate that asks how people turn out the way they do. Is a personality something you can influence yourself? And if not, if personality is shaped only by our genetics or our environment, then how could anyone ever be judged for anything? What makes the behavioural disability any different? It soon leads to a conclusion that, as I have written before, even Hitler would not truly be guilty of his crimes.
On the same side of the argument, as O’Donnell also pointed out, feminism would strongly oppose a more lenient sentence. After all, if we use the boy’s disability as an excuse, doesn’t that just lead us into a very dangerous slippery slope? Would that not soon excuse rapists, if only it can be proven that they have a “behavioural disability”?
Of course, as strong as those arguments are, the question remains who we would be helping by locking the child up for many years. It wouldn’t be a proper way of dealing with the disability, and while perhaps it does protect society from the individual, what protects the individual from society? Can we really argue that his actions were caused by his lack of morality or something related to his personality, rather than just being a reaction to circumstances triggered by his disability?
Again, it seems like we have run into a complete dead end. While most of my posts, no matter how neutral, can at least come up with some answers, I once again find myself at a loss of what to conclude. None of the options proposed seem in any way viable, so then what is the solution? Is there even a solution?
Despite that, though, there definitely are lessons to be learned: first, it is good to be aware of these problems, because it might at least get us one step closer to understanding, and understanding can truly help the individual who suffers from this. Second, it might explain why we know so little about it. As O’Donnell said in the lecture that inspired these posts, she is researching the topic, but she knows that it won’t receive attention any time soon. It’s just not on the political agenda. It is a topic so complex, and with such a lack of solutions, that we would rather shun it. We would rather ignore it and not think about it.
But that is never right, and hopefully, after reading all this, you will agree, and you will at least be able to take a few minutes to think about it. Because right now, that seems to be the only step in the right direction that we can take.
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