Skip to main content

Dignity and rights of the persons with disabilities must be fully respected in light of court judgment on killing of autistic teenager

Two years ago, a father killed his 15-year-old autistic son by chopping him 100 times and then attempted to kill himself. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in July.

More than 700 mitigation letters were received and the man was jailed for four years by the High Court [1]. The judge rightly pointed out that it was a tragedy from every angle. However, the sentence appeared to be light for a planned and intentional killing.

It was a case of manslaughter, yet a very sad case. The man saw his autistic son as a “burden” and thought by eliminating that burden”, family life would return to normal.

He was reportedly a responsible father and husband, suffering from severe depression due to the condition of his son.

We should consider the case with compassion and humanity, but justice should not be overlooked in the interests of the victim whose life was undeservedly taken away. Autism or disability of any sort should never be an excuse for killing.

Hopefully, the court would not have sent the wrong message.

Disability is not a problem. Unfortunately, it seems to be widely accepted in our society that it is a problem with the individual.

The dominant rehabilitation model defines disability primarily as an “illness” – a problem that has to be “cured”. Those with autism and many other disabilities are unnecessarily construed as being “sick”.

Measures and strategies, no matter how well intended, may work to exclude them from the community and social life in order to minimise disruption to those considered “normal”, “regular” or “mainstream”. Assuming this “sick” role, the disabled are presumed to be “abnormal” and less worthy.

Those with disabilities and their families are expected to take up the primary responsibility of “problem fixing”. Therefore, their lives are very often confined by all sorts of diagnostic and therapeutic conceptions.

To see people with disabilities as “sick” or less worthy is an unfortunate misconception. However, this misconception is particularly pervasive in our society emphasising competitive individualism and a meritocratic ethic.

On top of this, many of the needs of the disabled and their families are misconceived as welfare burdens.

Under the existing model, family is the main support system. But family may not always be a stable and lasting institution. There are a range of limiting factors such as knowledge, skills, psychological well-being and so forth.

At least two proposals may be put forward to reform the current model in the light of the spirit of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [2]. Hong Kong, as a special administrative region of China, has an obligation to implement the convention.

First, the inherent dignity of people with disabilities, including those having long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, should be effectively respected. Their equal enjoyment of rights should be recognised. In other words, they are rights-bearing human beings of equal worth (Article 1).

Second, with that normative foundation, social and welfare policies in relation to those with disabilities should be geared towards a people-centred direction to foster inclusion as well as community and family partnership (Article 19).

Inclusion advocate John O'Brien has put forward five basic tasks to enable and enhance citizenship and inclusion of people with disabilities: (a) to discover gifts and interests; (b) to create opportunities; (c) to make connections; (d) to assist; and (e) to safeguard.

The quality of life of the disabled and their families matters. People with disabilities, their families and society at large need to go beyond the rehabilitation-medical model to see the disabled as full and equal members of society.

If those with disabilities and their families can see alternatives and the possibility of choices in life, tragedy can be avoided.

*An edited version of this article was published as "Rights of disabled in Hong Kong must be fully respected in light of court judgment on killing of autistic boy" on 29 August 2016 in the online edition of the South China Morning Post. It also appeared as "Tragedy must be avoided by respecting disabled rights" on 30 August 2016 in the print edition.