Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Murder of Torrance Cantrell: Towards Revising the Religious/Moral Model of Disability

"[We] didn't do nothing wrong," the pastor, David Hemphill, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper.
"We did what the Book of Matthew said... all we did is ask God to deliver him."

© http://lifeinlegacy.com/2003/WIR20030830.html
Torrance Cantrell
On August 26, 2003, Torrance Cantrell, an 8-year-old autistic boy, was brutally murdered during one of a series of church exorcisms on him.  Apparently, Torrance's mother had been taking him to Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith three times a week in the weeks prior to the murder in hopes of "curing" his autism. I cried even imagining what terror this child went through.

This murder is a terrible consequence of the moral/religious model of disability, which historically fosters viewing disability as a punishment, an evil curse, possession, or a spiritual malady to be fought against. Parents presented with the medical model of disability when their children are given a diagnosis of autism combine that point of view with a predisposition to the already ingrained religious model to perceive any impairment their child has as something needing amelioration. Parents who have already been exposed to years of subliminal ableism within their faith-based community life then look for any means necessary to "heal" or "normalize" their child. Autism becomes an anthropomorphic being that is made the scapegoat for the child's differences and attacked. The imminent danger is, you cannot separate a person's neurology from their brain and physical body. So this approach to disability, particularly in cases of neurodivergent children and adults, can lead to catastrophic ends.

What I have observed in accepting parents and neurodivergent disability rights activists who are also people of faith, is an active effort to educate their religious congregations on the nature of autism. Some go further, demanding acceptance and inclusion in their places of worship and the religious activities of their communities. I think advocates who worship need to go further still. Let's play what if.

What if, at the moment Torrance Cantrell was diagnosed, his mother had been presented with a resource list of faith-based organizations which understood autism and would not only accommodate her child's needs for support but provide them both a place of acceptance and hope. That single resource list might have made her a stronger advocate for her son, rather than a parent who bought into a demonizing disability model which ended in murder. It might have saved Torrance's life.

 If the parents and autistic activists are in a religious community which has revised the traditional moral model of disability to embracing neurological diversity, it may be a good idea to speak positively of those organizations so families and adults seeking religious support know there are places out there that are safe and empowering.

Inclusive religious organizations have a tremendous opportunity to educate their congregations to accommodate, support and include disabled members in their lives more fully. Community inclusion is not just tolerance, it is acceptance of differences and celebrating the human spirit.

 I applaud autistic disability rights activists and parent allies who speak out and provide templates of what they have done to bring their places of worship to a better understanding of the nature of autism and how to be inclusive of autistic people in worship without harming them in the name of curing them. I think these forward thinking activists' efforts may someday cause a quiet shift in the religious model of disability from a historical tradition of ostracizing, isolating, and breeding catastrophic attempts at exorcism and faith healing to places that breed acceptance and inclusion. I think this is the solution to overcoming this dangerously ableist disability model.

In memory of Torrance Cantrell, gone but not forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. While this story is most definitely a tragedy of the utmost, I would offer that as the parent of a child with autism and a follower of Jesus, the "moral/religous model of disability" is not as pervasive (no pun intended) as suggested here. I have lived in different parts of the country after my son was diagnosed when he was two years old (five years ago) and I have seen tremendous efforts made by churches and other people of faith to do what they could to not only understand autism, but to accommodate and nurture the child to the best of their ability. At the very worst I have seen, autism is not understood properly and the child is marginalized in their class, not to make light of it, but that is the worst I personally have seen. I have heard worse about families being asked to leave, but I don't believe anything that I've seen, heard or read had anything to do with the perception that autism is caused by some demonic power to be exorcised or that it is a punishment for the parents or even the child him/herself.

    While the severe misinterpretation of autism and the seemingly necessary implications of eradication these particular groups may propagate may still exist, I think (I hope!) their existence is very small. Obviously in this church, it is there and it is very, very wrong.

    I think we're on an upswing now of great parental and teacher advocates who are working very hard in their communities and especially faith communities to disband the negative perception of autism, or any disability or illness for that matter, as being evil and demonic, or granted as a punishment. There are many internet-based faith communities such as Not-Alone and The Inclusive Church, not to mention the many special needs programs popping up in churches all over the country offering more than Sunday-only services such as respite nights for parents with professionally or volunteer-trained adults, activities tailored just for children with special needs and integrated with neuro-typical peers for inclusion.

    All that to say that I agree with your post - the line of thinking that led to the horrific murder of this precious boy is wrong and needs desperately to be corrected. We still need more advocates, more people who love our kids enough to help them in any and every way possible, instead of continuing to isolate, marginalize and torment them with actions such as these. Currently, my son is the only one with autism or any special needs in our very small church, but I assure you that I am just as strong of an advocate there as I am when I spoke for the Senate and House of Delegates on behalf of autism legislation. I hope parents and others continue to gain courage to speak out and make changes in this world for the better of our children.