The White Flower Memorial: Collecting Rose Petals and Reflecting on the Unreflected

By Catia Malaquias

“Remembering those with disabilities who have died in institutional care, in detention and in domestic care situations.” (The White Flower Memorial)

Today I am collecting white flowers from my neighbour’s garden.

This evening I will attend a small local ceremony in remembrance of disabled people who have died at the hands of others, sometimes in institutions or other places of confinement, at the hands of families and authorities.

Most have died leaving little mark on the world – maybe their memory – maybe a dark story.  People that died from neglect, abuse, violence and murder.  People denied voice, opportunity or credibility to denounce their perpetrators.

Disrespected in life.  Most are forgotten in death.

There is probably no minority group in the world with proportionately more members in unmarked graves.  In many, many cases, ‘graves’ would be an exaggeration.

Our cultural response to people with disability has a massive bearing on their capacity to realise their human rights; the right to life and dignity of the person as expressly affirmed in article 10 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Perpetuating stigmatisation and prejudice perpetuates behaviours that are enabled – even ‘justified’ – by the devaluation of people with disability – neglect, abuse, violence and murder. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of disrespect and abuse.  Prejudice and stigma breed devaluation and disrespect, the circumstances that facilitate abuse and consequent prejudice.

Creating cultural change – changing attitudes – improving expectations – for people with disability are each critical to improving outcomes and opportunities and removing the barriers denying the realisation of fundamental human rights.  But these are all relative goals – relative to the present – but grounded in our past.  History, and recent history, continues to subconsciously taint society’s contemporary perception of people with disability and what society thinks it means to be disabled.

Sometimes people say to me, “Isn’t it great how much things have improved for people with disability?”  Some even question whether there is any lingering prejudice or denial of opportunity, “But your son can go to a regular school now, isn’t that great!

People with disability know their history – they also know how far things need to change and improve before their lives will have equality of rights and opportunity and equality in respect.

I am not disabled.  But through my son’s experience and the experiences of many friends who have generously shared their perspectives, I have developed some understanding.  I see what I didn’t see before.  I see injustices I didn’t see before. And now I cannot unsee them, but nor do I wish to.

So this evening, I will attend a remembrance ceremony and bring white flowers.  As a sign of love and respect for those who were often uncounted and mostly disrespected.  And also in recognition of the untold damage that societal stigma and prejudice continue to pose and mask for disabled people, people like my son, who deserve so much better.

[Cover photo © Galina]

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