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Stapleton Story Highlights Divide Among Disability Advocates

Issy & Kelli Stapleton pictured in an archive blog posting on Kelli's blog: The Status Woe.
The Status Woe
The Status Woe
Issy & Kelli Stapleton pictured in an archive blog posting on Kelli's blog: The Status Woe.

Last week in Benzie County Circuit Court, Kelli Stapleton pleaded “not guilty” to attempted murder. Police allege she tried to kill her 14-year-old, autistic daughter Isabelle in a murder-suicide attempt.

The case moves slowly though court, but it quickly raised sharp debate among people who live with disabilities like autism.

Kelli Stapleton has said little in her defense during brief court appearances since September. But Stapletonspoke to IPR a year ago, in February. She described life with her daughter Issy, who was then 13 years old. The girl spent much of the year in a residential program in Kalamazoo, in therapy to control her severe aggression.

“It’s very quiet with her gone,” Kelli Stapleton said. “She’s just everywhere … just our little girl and we just miss her. We miss her. But we’re also – we’re not flinching every time there’s a loud noise.”  

Kelli Stapleton told us then that Issy had a bright future. But six months later, not long after Issy returned home, police allege Kelli Stapleton drugged her daughter to sleep and lit two charcoal grills inside the family van. Both mother and daughter were found unconscious.  

Desperate Parents

The story quickly got the attention of the national media, and disability advocates everywhere.

This happens too often for it to be a personal failing. -- Blogger Adrienne Jones

“I was just terrified that, if it could happen out of the blue with her it could happen out of the blue... I have lots of friends with seriously disabled children,” says Adrienne Jones. She lives in Arizona and blogs about disability issues.

Jones’ youngest son, Carter, is mentally ill. He is also prone to aggression and extreme insomnia. At the height of his illness, back when it was uncontrolled, Jones says she wondered if things would ever get better. She became a sleep-deprived mother with twisted logic who started to imagine a way out for her and her son: carbon-monoxide poisoning.

“We didn’t have a garage in that house, and I fantasized running a vacuum cleaner hose from the car into the bedroom window – which would never work. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. But I thought, ‘Maybe this is the only way to end this pain. Maybe it’s never going to get any better.’”   

Jones says hopelessness and feelings of isolation are common among parents of disabled children, that these cases are too common to be a parent’s personal failing. She says desperate parents need more help.

Accepting Disability

But others say the real problem is how society perceives people with disabilities.

There is a lot of messaging, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, that sends the message that disabled lives are not worth as much as non-disabled lives. -- Ari Ne'eman, Autistic Self Advocacy Network

“I think when the media, and when the autism community, presents people who murder, or who attempt to murder, autistic people as objects of sympathy we send a message and we set the stage for the next incident,” says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in Washington D.C. He says there’s a growing list of disabled people who are victims of violence perpetrated by loved ones.

“And each year, in over a dozen cities, disabled people gather in candlelit vigils to remember what has occurred against our brethren and to read the names of people whose lives were taken from them, and for no other reason than because they had a disability,” he says.

At the root of this, Ne’eman says, is a society that still undervalues disabled children and adults. He says parents and autism organizations believe children must be cured to be happy and successful.

Feeling The Divide

South of Traverse City, Marlowe Franklin helps her son, 10-year-old Harrison, to get a bowl of cereal. She says she does wish Harrison didn’t have to struggle so much. But she also says there are parts of his personality would be lost without autism, his humor, for example.

Kelli Stapleton in the hospital after an attack by her daughter. The photo was originally posted to her blog.
Credit The Status Woe
The Status Woe
Kelli Stapleton, in a photo posted to her blog on February 5, 2013.

“He’s funny,” she says. “And I think he thinks he’s funny sometimes.”

Franklin is a social worker and she agrees there is often a deep divide among advocates, with disabled adults on one side and the parents of disabled children on the other.

Indeed, Kelli Stapleton was a lightning rod in the disability community long before the tragic events of September.

“Kelli was a very popular blogger, I think, it a lot of different ways,” Franklin says. “Some people agreed with her and some people really liked to disagree with her.” 

Stapleton wrote a blog calledThe Status Woe, with raw details about life with Issy, including a photo with Kelli in the hospital having been injured by her daughter. There’s also video of a separate attack.

Critics said then that Kelli Stapleton publicly displayed her teen daughter’s tantrums in a way she would never do to her non-disabled children.

Credit Linda Stephan / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Marlowe Franklin and her son, Harrison, at their home in East Bay Township.

“But I saw how many parents came out and were contacting us about their struggles,” says Franklin. “And then I really started to realize that the isolation for these parents is really huge.

“It became very personal to me because there have been times when I’ve found extremely isolated because you have a child who is not like everyone else.”


Franklin is raising money for her friend’s legal defense and withholding judgment on how the court should rule.

While some argue society should distinguish between cruel intentions and desperate ones, Ari Ne’eman, of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, says the justice system should to respond to the allegations against Kelli Stapleton in the same way it would respond were Issy not autistic.

“Equal justice under law demands no less,” he says.

The trial is set to begin April 2nd.