Sat, Sep 17, 2016 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Japan confronts disability stigma after attack

Reuters, TOKYO

Takashi Ono, left, seated next to his wife, Chikiko, parents of Kazuya, a long-time resident of the Tsukui Yamayuri-en, hold a smartphone displaying a photograph of their son at their home in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Sept. 7.

Photo: Reuters

The stabbing deaths of 19 disabled people in their sleep in July and the silence surrounding their identities are forcing Japan to grapple with its attitudes toward physically and cognitively impaired persons, less than four years before Tokyo hosts the Paralympics.

Almost nothing except their genders and ages — ranging from 19 to 70 — has been made public about those who died when a man went on a stabbing spree at a facility for disabled people in Sagamihara town, southwest of Tokyo, killing 19 and wounding 26 others.

The silence has sparked debate about the need for change in a society where people with disabilities can still suffer stigma and shame.

“It is true that some may not have wanted their children to be subjected to public scorn,” said Takashi Ono, stepfather of 43-year-old Kazuya, a long-time resident of the Tsukui Yamauri-en facility who survived multiple stabbing wounds in the attack.

Ono and his wife, Chikiko, are among the few relatives who have gone public. None of the families of the dead have done so.

“In Japan, disabled people are discriminated against so the families wanted to hide them,” Ono said in an interview, adding he and Chikiko had always been open about their son, who has autism and cognitive disabilities.

Japan has made progress in its treatment of the disabled. It ratified a UN rights treaty in 2014 and a new anti-discrimination law took effect in April. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regularly mentions the disabled when speaking of plans for a more inclusive society to cope with a shrinking population.

However, people with disabilities, especially cognitive impairments, can still suffer from stigma and — unlike in many advanced Western countries — their families share the shame.

In a statement released to Japanese media after July’s stabbing spree, police in Kanagawa Prefecture, where the facility is located, said that they did not release the victims’ names because it was a facility for cognitively disabled people and they needed to protect the families’ privacy.

They also said the victims’ families had requested special consideration about how the matter was reported.

Seiko Noda, a prominent ruling party lawmaker who has suffered abuse on the Internet for “wasting taxpayers’ money” on medical care for her five-year-old disabled son Masaki, was not surprised that the Sagamihara victims’ families chose anonymity.

“Some families are positive and try to change the world by being open about their disabled children. But the ‘silent majority’ still has a negative view and does not want it known that they have disabled children,” Noda, 56, said.

Victims’ families likely also worried about being accused of abandoning their relatives by institutionalizing them, experts said.

The identity blackout stands in stark contrast to coverage of other Japanese victims of mass killings, including seven who died in a July attack by extremist militants in Bangladesh.

“Clearly, there is a difference in the treatment of those with disabilities and those without disabilities,” said Kiyoshi Harada of the Japan Disability Forum, a non-governmental organization.

“We cannot tell what sort of lives the victims led, what their hobbies were, what their existence was like.”

The suspect in the Sagamihara killings, Satoshi Uematsu, had been briefly committed to hospital as a danger to himself and others after writing to a lawmaker advocating euthanasia for the severely disabled and outlining a plan for mass murder.

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