Webcast archive: Lawsuit, stereotypes, and prisons

This week, we discuss the Ontario man who filed a lawsuit for self-directed personal assistance, disability stereotypes, and euthanasia in Canadian prisons.

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • News flash! An Ontario man files lawsuit demanding self-directed home care instead of assisted suicide
  • Disability, stereotypes and assisted suicide – part 2
  • Assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canadian prisons

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • CTV News is reporting that a 42-year-old London, Ontario man, Roger Foley, has filed suit in Ontario Superior Court against the attorneys general of Ontario and Canada, as well as several health and social service agencies, asking for self-directed home-care services.  Foley was hospitalized two years ago after home health aides furnished by providers contracted by the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) endangered his life and health on multiple occasions.  His application to Ontario’s Self-Directed Personal Support Services program was denied, and administrative delays have stalled the appeal of his denial.
  • The complaint claims that the Victoria Hospital and the LHIN “violated Mr. Foley’s Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person when they met with Mr. Foley to discuss contemporaneously forced discharge or [Medical Assistance in Dying] as Options for him without providing Mr. Foley with any support for a safe and available self-directed assisted care option that would substantially alleviate his irremediable and intolerable suffering.”
  • For more information, visit http://assistedlife.ca.


  • Today, we’re continuing our discussion on disability and stereotypes, by looking at the effect of stereotypes on assisted suicide and euthanasia (AS/E). Last week, we examined common media images of disabled people, as dependent, bitter and self-pitying, evil, freakish or as “super cripples”. In their 2007 article examining 18 films where the central character has a disability, Rhonda S. Black and Lori Pretes add the “better dead than disabled” stereotype to that list.
  • Movies like “Me Before You” and “Million-Dollar Baby” show characters rejecting their newly-acquired disability identity. In these alternate universes, there is no such thing as independent living, accessible environments, disability rights, or other disabled people who are satisfied with their lives. “A cure” or “death” are the only acceptable options.
  • Since a cure is not possible, the newly disabled person can only “escape” the “horror” of disability through death. Anyone who tries to discourage their self-destruction is considered a busybody who “cannot possibly understand” the character’s “hopeless” situation.
  • These films portray disability as causing “dependence, misery, and deprivation of autonomy,” whereas these problems are really caused by public policies, prejudice and external barriers. Without necessary emotional support and other resources, suicide is shown as a reasonable response to disability, even though it’s still shocking enough to attract viewers.
  • When these characters choose to die, they are held up as examples of courage and determination. They’re (supposedly) making a free choice, with no obstacles or constraints; using their willpower to overrule those who oppose their decision for selfish or arbitrary reasons.
  • News coverage of people who want to end their lives – like Gloria Taylor (“feisty and determined,” “heroic”), Brittany Maynard, and Jerika Bolen – looks similar to these fictional scenarios.  Ms. Maynard was called “courageous,” and Ms. Bolen’s hopes for “freedom” were widely publicized. The “better dead than disabled” stereotype is a variation on “inspiration porn” with a touch of tragedy. Instead of being praised for ordinary activities like grocery shopping, disabled people seeking death become heroes by fighting a cruel society that won’t allow a peaceful end to their suffering.
  • Sometimes AS/E is portrayed as a sacrifice for loved ones, to relieve them of the burden of care and witnessing the person’s decline. There are a couple of problems with this:
    • Ending one’s life should not be considered an intentional act of kindness toward another.
    • Giving control over the conditions of their death to some people opens the door to coercion of others.
  • There are many myths about medical killing sold by the “better dead than disabled” stereotype.  People are not “forced” to continue living; whether AS/E is legal or not, disabled people can (and do) commit suicide. The “better dead than disabled” person says “my existence is unbearable, so I’m taking control of my life.” But in fact, the person must give control to legislators to establish criteria for who is eligible, to doctors to decide if they fit the eligibility criteria, to a pharmacist to dispense the drug, and (in the case of euthanasia) to another doctor to provide the lethal injection.
  • The “Better off dead” stereotype carries warped expectations, as summarized by Donald Low in his posthumous plea for legalization of AS/E, when he said “You drink a cocktail and you fall asleep and you do this in the presence of your family.”
    • AS/E does not guarantee that death will be peaceful and free of complications.
    • It does not mean that family and friends will be present in your last moments, and that the atmosphere will be loving and harmonious.
    • Dying by lethal injection is not “drifting off to sleep.”
  • Like “death with dignity,” these are euphemisms meant to hide the reality of AS/E. Besides being cheesy and sentimental, saying the procedure leads to “sleep” is just not true. Death is permanent. The person won’t be able to feel the release promised by AS/E promoters because they won’t exist to feel anything.
  • Another stereotype emerges from news accounts of “devoted” elderly spouses who die within hours of each other, the loving husband who releases his wife from a painful illness by helping her to die, murder-suicide, or suicide pacts, all offered as the pinnacle of romantic love.  Researchers have found that behind such events often lurks a history of domestic violence, and romantic portrayals in the press can encourage suicide contagion.
  • We pointed out last week that stereotypes exist in part to maintain the social order.  We are now facing an evolving social order where the quality of life with a disability is diminished by poverty, isolation and forced institutionalization, then labeled as unbearable. Activists who challenge this system (like J.J. Hanson) are not recognized for their efforts.  Anyone who lives with a disability or illness after having been “normal” risks being called “undignified.”  On the other hand, people who seek death are praised and celebrated (like Brittany Maynard) as a new kind of hero who acknowledge that they are “better dead than disabled.”  What does that say about our society?


  • At the end of February, CBC News published a story on access to assisted suicide in Canadian prisons, after an inmate in a federal prison became the first to die by euthanasia. Applications made by three more people have been approved.  None of the responses to the story have come from a disability rights point of view, though, so we thought we should discuss it.
  • Ivan Zinger, an investigator for Correctional Services Canada, the body overseeing Canada’s federal prisons, wrote a letter to the organization’s acting commissioner, saying that guidelines allowing assisted suicide in prisons “[breach] the system’s legal and ethical obligations.” He proposed that terminally ill prisoners should instead “be given conditional release on ‘humanitarian and compassionate’ grounds.”
  • Disability rights advocates often talk about institutions restricting the freedoms of disabled residents. Usually, we’re referring to nursing homes, where meals, showers, and bedtimes are scheduled for the good of the facility. Prisons are worse – besides the lack of accessibility, inmates are treated as less than human. Although palliative care is supposed to be available in prison, the reality often doesn’t meet even basic standards.  Services are provided too late to be useful, loved ones’ visits are limited, and medical professionals often hesitate to give adequate pain medication.
  • Adelina Iftene, a prison law expert at Dalhousie University, worries that some people will choose assisted suicide as an escape from these horrible conditions. She noted that a person cannot fully consent to assisted suicide if they are “pressured” by external circumstances (an argument we’ve heard somewhere before).
  • We can’t leave out the fact that people of color and indigenous people are overrepresented in Canada’s prison system, due to the many effects of systemic racism. As well, prison has become the go-to “residential option” for people with psychiatric disabilities because mental health resources are scarce and underfunded. Assisted suicide does nothing to address these combined forms of discrimination and oppression. Instead, it’s another sign of inhumane treatment being ignored.