Autistic Future
July 24th, 2016

Charles Kinsey, Heroism, And The Value of Life

My breath caught when I heard the news. My eyes welled up. If I had­n’t been at work, I might have allowed myself to shed a few tears over what Charles Kin­sey has done. His appalling vic­tim­iza­tion does­n’t sur­prise me, but his hero­ism is shock­ing. Mr. Kin­sey did some­thing stun­ning and wild­ly counter-cul­tur­al: he risked his life to save a man with sig­nif­i­cant disabilities.

Kin­sey must have under­stood that he was step­ping into a volatile sit­u­a­tion. The aver­age police offi­cer, like the aver­age civil­ian, like the 911 caller who man­u­fac­tured an emer­gency out of prej­u­dice and fear, is irra­tional­ly afraid of peo­ple with cer­tain kinds of dis­abil­i­ties. Peo­ple who are feared have a lot of encoun­ters with police. Encoun­ters between police and peo­ple who can’t answer ver­bal com­mands with quick com­pli­ance end in vio­lent death. Tak­ing the offi­cer at his word as to what he was think­ing, he dis­charged his weapon with a per­son he thought was an inno­cent bystander in the line of fire. I have my doubts that this would-be action hero would have gone the extra mile to avoid that if he had caught Arnal­do Rios alone. If Kin­sey had­n’t inter­vened, it’s hard to imag­ine an out­come for his client out­side of the near­est morgue.

Kin­sey must also have been aware of the par­tic­u­lar risk he was run­ning. The his­tor­i­cal rea­sons are dif­fer­ent, but Black men are irra­tional­ly feared, too. They are often viewed as threat­en­ing, with dead­ly con­se­quences, even when they’re not doing any­thing wrong. Charles Kin­sey put him­self in the mid­dle, medi­at­ing between his client and the offi­cers on the scene and try­ing to keep every­one calm, know­ing how like­ly it was that things would end in gun­fire, know­ing that con­scious or sub­con­scious bias could turn those bul­lets toward him. That would have been an act of uncom­mon courage if the sto­ry end­ed there, but it does­n’t. Kin­sey did­n’t risk his life for just any­one. He did it for a per­son for whom most of soci­ety would­n’t go through a minor inconvenience.

If some­one had told me this time last week that there was a sin­gle nondis­abled per­son in our soci­ety whose split-sec­ond, vis­cer­al cal­cu­lus of moral­i­ty and com­pas­sion would have come out that way, I would have laughed. That isn’t to say that I can’t imag­ine peo­ple dying for their chil­dren, par­ents, sib­lings, or very close friends who hap­pen to have dis­abil­i­ties. Add a few more degrees of sep­a­ra­tion, though, make the rela­tion­ship short­er and paid, and it becomes hard to imag­ine because peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­i­ties aren’t val­ued at all in our society.

Dis­abil­i­ties that don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly short­en life or cor­re­late to worse com­pli­ance with doc­tors’ instruc­tions still fac­tor into med­ical care where pro­fes­sion­als must decide which of a lim­it­ed num­ber of lives to save. Some sys­tems for allo­cat­ing scarce med­ical resources place an explic­it­ly low­er val­ue on dis­abled life.

Even when no one’s life needs to be on the line, nondis­abled peo­ple are con­stant­ly ask­ing why any­one would want to be alive with a dis­abil­i­ty at all. Posters for Me Before You, the movie about how death is bet­ter than being dis­abled, young, rich, attrac­tive, and in a great rela­tion­ship, are still up at the the­ater in my neighborhood.

The image is a poster for Me Before You beside a poster for another film

There are still promi­nent indi­vid­u­als who con­sid­er invol­un­tary euthana­sia for cer­tain kinds of peo­ple moral­ly accept­able. It often seems like prac­ti­cal­ly no one cares about peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­i­ties, espe­cial­ly peo­ple who are past the age of cute, espe­cial­ly peo­ple who have chal­leng­ing behaviors.

Amer­i­can and West­ern norms are pow­er­ful­ly against Kin­sey’s actions, but he over­came them. When he col­lid­ed with our cul­ture, his con­science proved the stronger of the two. It isn’t a secret that equal­i­ty is still a dis­tant dream in our soci­ety and in most of us, but some peo­ple are ahead of the curve. When adren­a­line is flow­ing, and there may not time to over­come any hes­i­tance to do the right thing, the vis­cer­al reac­tion of an excep­tion­al­ly accu­rate moral com­pass some­times reveals a hero. Last week, in Charles Kin­sey, we found one.

I hope the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty will ral­ly around him and com­mend and com­mem­o­rate his actions as much as is com­fort­able for him. If you run an orga­ni­za­tion, he prob­a­bly belongs on the short list for your awards ban­quet this year. If he and his fam­i­ly need any­thing at this dif­fi­cult time in their lives, vol­un­teers should come out of the wood­work. It turns out that there is at least one nondis­abled per­son in Amer­i­ca who will risk his life for some­one with sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­i­ties who isn’t a first-degree rel­a­tive or very long-term friend. We found a rare, spe­cial per­son in our midst when he saved a mem­ber of our com­mu­ni­ty from almost cer­tain death. That debt isn’t pos­si­ble to repay, so the best we can do is respond by tak­ing care of him.

Update: the GoFundMe is right here.