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World Association of Persons with Disabilities

By Diane Coleman

July 18, 2001

Disability Community Reeling From
Death of Robert Wendland

The disability community is stunned to learn that Robert Wendland died today.  A disabled man with severe brain injuries, Wendland has been the focus of a six-year court battle to define the rights of conservators to end the lives of conscious people with cognitive disabilities in the absence of clear evidence of their wishes.

Only six weeks ago, disability advocates representing ten prominent disability organizations, lead by Not Dead Yet and including the national Brain Injury Association, attended oral argument before the California Supreme Court, after having filed a friend of the court brief in support of Wendland's mother, Florence. Her attorney, Janie Siess "provided the Court a compelling analysis of the risks of denying meaningful due process protections to people with disabilities in health care decision-making," said Amy Hasbrouck, a disabled Boston attorney and primary author of the disability brief. "Many of us felt that the high Court Justices asked good questions, and understood that a disabled person's right to live might, as a constitutional matter, outweigh a conservator's right to refuse food and water by tube on their 'behalf' without clear evidence of their wishes."

"We have been hopeful about a ruling in Robert Wendland's favor," said Diane Coleman, President of Not Dead Yet. "His sudden death is a shocking loss.  Our hearts go out to Florence Wendland, and her attorney Janie Siess, who tirelessly struggled to save his life." Disability activists are concerned that, in the weeks leading up to his death, his mother was prohibited from getting information about his condition, and his sister was prohibited from visiting. "They were up against some very powerful pro-euthanasia activists, people with a specific long term agenda for health policy, and the credentials and resources to move that agenda," said Coleman. "But Robert Wendland's wonderful mother saw him as a person, she saw his humanity as he kissed her hand. As a disabled person, I honor Florence as someone who respected Robert Wendland for the man he was after his injury, not just the man he was before."

The question remains, will those backing Robert Wendland's wife, who has spent six years seeking the right to starve him to death, avert a California Supreme Court ruling by arguing that the case is moot. "If the case is brushed from the docket as moot," says Hasbrouck, "people under guardianship will continue to be at grave risk, should their intellectual capacity not measure up, and their speech capacity fail them, and should their 'loved' ones not love them as persons with disabilities. Our job now is to make sure that the issue does not go away with Robert Wendland's last breath."