Why Has Japan’s Massacre Of Disabled Gone Unnoticed? For Answers, Look To The Past

Is there an ongoing ambivalence toward people living with disabilities? James Emery, CC BY

Kristy Hamilton 02 Sep 2016, 15:13

Hiding people who live with disabilities

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.

How did we get here?

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.

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