Satoshi Uematsu, 26, killed 19 people and injured another 26 in a centre for disabled people near Tokyo, Japan, this week.
He did so under the premise that he wanted “to rid the world of disabled people”.
In February he sent a letter to a politician outlining his plan. He reportedly said, ‘My goal is a world in which, in cases where it is difficult for the severely disabled to live at home and be socially active, they can be euthanized with the consent of their guardians’ .
He went on to say that “there is still no answer about the way of life for individuals with multiple disabilities. The disabled can only create misery.”
Clearly this is a deeply troubled man. A person who attacks a person, disabled or not, in their sleep with a knife, is disturbed on multiple levels that go beyond their views on disability, but I want to focus on his views, even if they are amplified beyond recognition by mental illness.
Thankfully, this kind of news, this kind of extreme hate crime against people in the special needs and disabled community is not common. Thankfully, when we see this on the news, our hands fly to our faces in horror because it is so rare. We should be horrified. It is horrifying.
But while we should be horrified, I don’t think it follows that we can be entirely surprised. This man’s views, while clearly influenced by mental health issues, were not created in a vacuum. He did not come up with his disdain and pity and dehumanised view of people with disabilities all on his own. He shares these views, albeit watered down, with many people around the world.
It is easy for us to condemn him. And we should. What he did should be condemned, but we also need to think about how those ideas came to be bouncing around in his head. Where did he get the idea that disability equates to misery?
The average person watching this story on the evening news will take a sharp intake of breath and exclaim what a disgusting act this was and move on with their evening. They will see themselves and their own views on disability and special needs as being light years from this man’s extreme actions. But the reality is that we live in a world where disability and special needs are othered to the point where they are viewed with pity and ridicule by many. And not just by men like this. We may not all desire for “all the handicapped to disappear” as he did, but we do live in a world where life for someone with special needs or disability can be incredibly difficult, and not because of their disability, but because the world is not built for them and will not bend to suit their needs.
We live in a world where the word “retard” is thrown around without a second thought. We live in a world where finding out your child has been born with special needs or disability requires a grieving process and mourning because that way of life is not preferred or seen as the way to live a good life, and I say this as someone who went through that very process. The world my daughter was born into, and died in due to complications of her special needs, was frightening and lonely for me as a new special needs parent. It wasn’t a world of opportunities for my daughter, it was a world where, if I admit it, I saw a future of misery for myself and her, at least until I realised my mistakes.
We live in a world where funding for special education must be fought for tooth and nail, and where cuts are being made regularly because there are more important places for governments to place their money. We live in a world where a child with special needs is turned down for a heart transplant because doctors deemed her life not worthy enough to save. We live in a world where if people really looked inside themselves, they might realise that while they would never hurt someone or want to rid disability from the earth, they also might not wish it on themselves or their children, they would avoid it at all cost, if they could. We live in a world where every 10 years the language used to describe disability and special needs has to be refreshed because the current terminology has become something negative. It’s not the words that are the problem, it’s our views on disability that send tendrils of pity and disgust through those otherwise harmless nouns, suffocating them of all their meaning and turning the word special from a signifier to an insult.
I don’t want to live in that world anymore. I want an event like this to force us to not just condemn these actions, but look at where they came from. I want us to be reflective and honest with ourselves about our feelings around disability. I want to live in a world where it’s not just those who are immediately affected by disability and special needs who understand that while there are challenges, and I would never deny that there are, there is also beauty and gratitude and love in this world of special needs and disability. I want to live in a world where life with special needs or disabilities isn’t difficult because there are supports and funding for both the person themselves and their carers. This is not a life to be pitied, or seen with disgust, this is a life to be celebrated. Our lives are not measured by our paycheques or our ability to pay taxes, or our ability to talk or walk. We cannot pass judgement on the value of someone’s life because the way they live does not look like what we imagined a good life to look.
But we do. And it needs to stop. Otherwise if and when another Uematsu, hate-filled event happens, we can no longer be shocked. We will be complicit. We will know this man was not created out of nothing. His views came from somewhere. We need to be honest about where that is, and change it.