On July 26, 2016 a man wielding a knife broke into Tsukui Yamayuriena, a home for the disabled outside of Tokyo and brutally murdered 19 people as they slept, while injuring another 26. Afterwards, he turned himself in to a local police station, with the explanation:
“It is better that the disabled disappear.”
Disability advocates have expressed dismay that the massacre – Japan’s deadliest mass killing since World War II – has received so little attention relative to mass killings in Paris, Nice, Orlando, Kabul and Baghdad.
Australian disability activist Carly Findlay wrote,
“There was no hashtag. No public outcry. Not even prayers.”
Disability rights journalist David Perry pointed out the irony that the attack came just one day before the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This sad coincidence is evidence of an ongoing ambivalence toward people with disabilities. On the one hand, they are increasingly visible – often as sources of inspiration for the able-bodied. And there are many signs of progress, such as recognition of their legal rights and more inclusive schools.
On the other, disabled people continue to face prejudice, social isolation, and violence.
I have spent over 20 years researching and writing about the history and culture of people with disabilities.
My research helps me to see continuities between the tragedy in Japan and the practice of institutionalization which started in the U.S. and Europe, and remained the primary way for managing people with disabilities for over a century. Regrettably, that practice still continues in many parts of the world.