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As I See It: Sagamihara massacre highlights problems with attitudes toward disabled

In a recent massacre at a care facility in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, a man allegedly murdered 19 people with severe intellectual disabilities and left 27 other people injured.

    The Kanagawa Prefectural Government reportedly intends to tear down and rebuild the facility, named Tsukui Yamayuri En, in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the urging of the guardians of the residents as well as facility managers.

    Kanagawa Prefectural Police have withheld the identities of those who were killed and injured in the incident on the grounds that it is necessary to protect the privacy of the bereaved families since the incident occurred at a care facility for intellectually disabled people.

    Many media reports on the case are sympathetic with the guardians of the victims who have suffered from discrimination and prejudice.

    The suspect, Satoshi Uematsu, is a former employee who had worked at the facility until five months before the incident. While on duty, Uematsu allegedly physically and verbally abused handicapped people living at the facility.

    There would be no surprise if the victims' families wondered why the facility employed such a person, why the facility's managers were unable to instruct Uematsu and improve his behavior, and why the victims could not have been protected even though the suspect allegedly declared in advance that he would launch such an attack. If a similar incident were to occur at a day care center, the facility managers would be held responsible for the incident. Why is it not the case with a care home for the intellectually handicapped?

    This is apparently because parents had no choice but to put their disabled children into Yamayuri En. The parents have had to shoulder all kinds of burdens while being subjected to cold stares from the public. I'm the father of a child with serious autism. Many people have shown compassion toward me and my son while others have cast a condescending eye on us as if we are a nuisance.

    I have seen numerous people who became mentally and physically ill after they were stressed out, lost their jobs and ended up seeing their families collapse. Care facilities have saved many of these parents.

    However, residents are forced to lead a communal life at such facilities where their freedom and privacy are restricted.

    Victims of abuse that occurred at the Shirakawa Ikusei En facility for handicapped people in Fukushima Prefecture in 1997 complained that they were forced into the facility against their will.

    "Why did I have to be forced into a facility in a mountainous area like this?" one of them said.

    "My father deceived me and took me to this facility," another lamented.

    Handicapped people at Yamayuri En probably would never say such a thing. Is that because Yamayuri En was a good facility or because they cannot talk due to their severe disabilities? They may appear to be happy, but that may be because they do not know other living environments. In a free and eventful community life, people can meet and interact with many people with different backgrounds. If residents at care homes for handicapped people experienced various challenges and difficulties and were moved or shed bitter tears, would they choose to enter the facility?

    Parents do many good things for their handicapped children, which they believe benefit their children. However, such parents often do so to gain a sense of reassurance for themselves rather than for their children. I feel this whenever I look back on what I have done. When I have experiences in which I feel a sense of desolation or alienation, a person who cares for my child often looks like a god to me. A parent's sense of reassurance occasionally conflicts with their children's happiness, even though I do not want to admit this.

    The suspect in the Sagamihara case saw the exhausted guardians of handicapped residents at Yamayuri En, came to think that disabled people "can only lead to unhappiness" and came to the conclusion that such people should be euthanized. Although his idea is absurdly twisted, there is no denying that his sympathy with the guardians of handicapped people forms part of the basis for his idea. News reports on the incident are also based largely on sympathy with the guardians of the victims.

    However, the guardians are not directly victimized by the incident. Concealing the existence of disabled children from society would not lead to true relief for their parents. If society sympathizes with the guardians, members of society should prioritize efforts to eliminate discrimination and prejudice against handicapped people, reduce the burden on their guardians and achieve a regional community where handicapped people can lead a happy life.

    The Kanagawa Prefectural Government should listen to the opinions of disabled residents of Yamayuri En before making a final decision on whether to rebuild the facility. If officials take time to interact and share feelings with the handicapped people living at the facility, the officials can eventually understand the residents' feelings even if the residents cannot speak.

    Such efforts are no easy task but welfare experts at the prefectural government must fully utilize their expertise to help the disabled residents make their own decisions.

    In Yokohama, people with the severest disabilities who need medical care are living in a family-like environment at Homon-no Ie. Lessons should be learned from these pioneering efforts that have proven that people with serious disabilities can live in regional communities they are familiar with.

    The situation of providing care for disabled people has been steadily changing, but society appears to stick to the stereotyped image that disabled people are unhappy. Such a stereotype has been maintained because the true victims have not been allowed to speak out against the idea. ("As I See It" by Kazuhiro Nozawa, Editorial Writer)

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