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 US 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.
In Japan there is a deep stigma against those who are unable to work. Indeed, it is still common to institutionalize people with disabilities, intellectual or otherwise, that impede their productivity.
By warehousing people with disabilities, institutions send the message that they need to be segregated and managed. It becomes easy for their differences to be seen as a shameful and frightening secret that happens to other, less worthy people.
In truth, disability is an aspect of ordinary experience that touches all people and all families at some point in the cycle of life.
As disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson notes,
“The fact is, most of us will move in and out of disability in our lifetimes, whether we do so through illness, an injury or merely the process of aging.”
Yet, fear of our own vulnerability and of the stigma that accompanies disability leads us to deny this basic truth. It is easier to see the disabled as a faceless population than as individuals who deserve respect, accommodation and opportunities to thrive.
A look at the past can help us to understand the attitudes toward the disabled we witness today. The history of disability has not been a path of steady progress toward tolerance and accommodation.
James Trent, a professor of sociology and social work at Gordon College, in his 1994 book, “Inventing the Feeble Mind,” describes shifting attitudes toward and treatment of people with disabilities in America since the Colonial era.
According to Trent, in the Colonial and early republican eras, “idiots” – as people with intellectual disabilities were known at the time – were recognized members of their local communities.
But beginning in the 19th century, the rise of modernity put greater emphasis on normality. A good citizen was one who had the ability to be productive and self-reliant. A new class of professionals emerged whose careers were devoted to managing human health and behaviour.
By the mid-19th century, these changes had contributed to the identification of “feeblemindedness” as a social problem that needed to be identified and treated. Feeblemindedness was a broad category that included people with intellectual disabilities, but also others who were deemed unproductive or immoral, such as immigrants, people of colour and the poor.
It became increasingly common to remove the feebleminded and other people with disabilities from their families and communities and place them in institutions.
7 ways the Tories have ‘helped’ disabled people
7 ways the Tories have ‘helped’ disabled people
1/7 Closing Remploy factories
The Work and Pensions Secretary called time on Britain’s system of Remploy factories, which provided subsidised and sheltered employment to disabled people. People employed at the factories protested against their closure and said they provided gainful work. “Is it a kindness to stick people in some factory where they are not doing any work at all? Just making cups of coffee?” Mr Duncan Smith said at the time, defending the decision. “I promise you this is better.” The Remploy organisation was privatised and sold to American workfare provider Maximus, with the majority of the organisation’s factories closed. The future of the remaining sites is unclear
2/7 Scrapping the Independent Living Fund
The £320m Independent Living Fund was established in 1988 to give financial support to people with disabilities. It was scrapped on July 1 2015, with 18,000 often severely disabled people losing out by an average of £300 a week. The money was generally used to help pay for carers so people could live in communities rather than institutions. Councils will get a boost in funding to compensate but it will not cover the whole cost of the fund. This new cash also doesn’t have to be spent on the disabled
3/7 Cut payments for the disabled Access To Work scheme
Iain Duncan Smith is bringing forward a policy that will reduce payments to some disabled people from a scheme designed to help them into work. The £108m scheme, which helps 35,540 people, will be capped on a per-used basis, potentially hitting those with the more serious disabilities who currently receive the most help. The single biggest users of the fund are people who have difficulty seeing and hearing. The cut will come in from October 2015. The charity Disability UK says the scheme actually makes the Government money because the people who gain access to work tend pay tax that more than covers its cost. The DWP does not describe the reduction as a “cut” and says it will be able to spread the money more thinly and cover more people
4/7 Cut Employment and Support Allowance
The latest Budget included a £30 a week cut in disability benefits for some new claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The Government says it is equalising the rate of disability benefits with Jobseekers Allowance because giving disabled people more help is a “perverse incentive”. The people affected by this cut are those assessed as having a limited capability for work but as being capable of some “work-related activity”. A group of prominent Catholics wrote to Mr Duncan Smith to say there was “no justification” for this cut. Mental health charity Mind, said the cut was “insulting and misguided”
5/7 Risk homelessness with a sharp increase disability benefit sanctions
Official figures in the first quarter of 2014 found a huge increase in sanctions against people reliant on ESA sickness benefit. The 15,955 sanctions were handed out in that period compared to 3,574 in the same period the year before, 2013 – a 4.5 times increase. The homelessness charity Crisis warned at the time that the sharp rise in temporary benefit cuts was “cruel and can leave people utterly destitute – without money even for food and at severe risk of homelessness”. “It is difficult to see how they are meant to help people prepare for work,” Matt Downie, director of policy at the charity added
6/7 Sending sick people to work because of broken fitness to work tests
In 2012 a government advisor appointed to review the Government’s Work Capability Assessment said the tests causing suffering by sending sick people back to work inappropriately. “There are certainly areas where it's still not working and I am sorry there are people going through a system which I think still needs improvement,” Professor Malcolm Harrington concluded. The tests are said to have improved since then, but as recently as this summer they are still coming in for criticism. In June the British Psychological Society said there was “now significant body of evidence that the WCA is failing to assess people’s fitness for work accurately and appropriately”. It called for a full overhaul of the way the tests are carried out. The WCA appeals system has also been fraught with controversy with a very high rate of overturns and delays lasting months and blamed for hardship
7/7 The bedroom tax
The Government’s benefit cut for people who it says are “under-occupying” their homes disproportionately affects disabled people. Statistics released last year show that around two-thirds of those affected by the under-occupancy penalty, widely known as the ‘bedroom tax’, are disabled. There have been a number of high profile cases of disabled people being moved out of specially adapted homes by the policy. In one case publicised by the Sunday People last week, a 48 year old man with cerebral palsy was forced to bathe in a paddling pool after the tax moved him out of his home with a walk-in shower. The Government says it has provided councils with a discretionary fund to help reduce the policy’s impact on disabled people, but cases continue to arise
Early institutions in the United States were inspired by French educator Edward Seguin, known as the “apostle for the idiots.” He believed that people with intellectual disabilities were capable of learning and development.
Inspired by Seguin’s success, the first American institutions, led by men such as Hervey B. Wilbur, Samuel Gridley Howe and Henry M. Knight, were dedicated to education and uplift. They were intended as a temporary measure to build residents’ skills and moral character, releasing them as productive members of society.
Within a few decades, the mission of institutions began to shift from reform to permanent custody of the feebleminded. It was hard to find employment for newly reformed inmates, particularly during periods of economic scarcity.
In the early 20th century, the eugenics movement contributed to prejudice against the feebleminded by proposing that they posed a threat to the purity and strength of the nation’s bloodlines.
Institutions addressed these concerns by hiding the “undesirables” from view. They also controlled their ability to reproduce through segregation and, in some cases, compulsory sterilisation.
Where once institutions had prioritized education and care, their mission shifted to social management. They became overcrowded, and residents were subjected to abuse and neglect.
Sometimes the “feebleminded” were used in medical experiments. Without their consent, they were exposed to pathogens for diseases such as hepatitis, gonorrhoea and flu.
By the mid-20th century, the rise of a parents’ movement and a series of damning journalistic exposes of facilities like Willowbrook State School and Letchworth Village began to roll back the practice of institutionalisation.
Once again, people with disabilities would be included in family, education and workplaces.
Thanks to such efforts, in the United States today people with disabilities often live within their own communities, although many of the problems introduced by institutional culture persist – albeit in different forms.
For example, people with disabilities can still be segregated into sheltered workshops where they are paid below minimum wage for dull and repetitive labour; isolated in special education classrooms and can still face diminished opportunities to work and socialise.
But in many other parts of the world, the practice of institutionalisation – and its attendant problems – remains. Media reports have highlighted the appalling conditions and abuse in facilities in Mexico, Russia and Romania.
The point of noting horrors in other parts of the world is not to exonerate the United States, where people with disabilities still encounter prejudice, exclusion and violence, but to emphasize the lingering culture of institutionalisation.
The fear, shame and misunderstanding around disability that we see today are sentiments that persist long after the facilities themselves have closed.
For example, families of those who died at Tsukui Yamayurien chose not to identify their names. I believe it is the logic of institutionalisation that motivated their decisions. So great is their shame that the victims’ families would prefer the dead to remain anonymous and unmemorialised than admit to having a disabled relative.
In the United States, this same reasoning lies behind hundreds of thousands of graves marked only with numbers at the cemeteries of former state asylums and hospitals. In recent years, advocates have sought to identify the dead, both to redress past crimes and to insist on the value of disabled lives in the present.
On the face of it, the massacre at Tsukui Yamayurien was committed by a single, deranged individual. But his actions belong to the long history of institutionalisation.
The practice of warehousing people with disabilities sends a message that they are less than human. Even long after institutions are closed, we continue to treat their former residents as a problem to be managed.
This article appeared first appeared in The Conversation.