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Violence, Disability, and the Lessons of Sagamihara

The ableist attack on a residential center for people with disabilities highlights the violence that disabled people face around the world — and how far we have to go.

By David Perry


Reporters gather in front of Tsukui Yamayuri En in Sagamihara, Japan, after a man with a knife left 19 people dead and 26 others wounded. (Photo: Ken Ishii/Getty Images)

Early on Tuesday morning in Sagamihara in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture, a 26-year-old man named Satoshi Uematsu broke into a residential center for disabled people and started slitting the throats of residents. Uematsu had used to work at the center, and just last February had sent a letter to Parliament arguing that Japan needed to start a “revolution” in “a world that allows for mercy killing,” and that the government should start by murdering disabled people. Authorities questioned him after the letter, and he was briefly hospitalized in March, but no other action was taken.

In the Sagamihara attack, Uematsu killed 19 residents and injured another 25, 20 of them seriously. He reportedly told authorities: “I did it. It’s better that the disabled disappear.” Of his victims, he said, “There is no question I stabbed people who could not communicate well.”

It’s easy to rally the public in outrage around the use of the “r-word,” or to cheer acts of kindness toward the disabled; it’s been much harder to get people to focus on isolation, dehumanization, and violence.

In the United States, July 26 marks the 26th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that has transformed America while creating a model that is being emulated worldwide. Tuesday’s celebrations took place at the White House and around the country, including at the Democratic National Convention, where Senator Tom Harkin, one of the architects of the ADA, took the stage to celebrate how far we’ve come. There is much to celebrate. But although it’s easy to rally the public in outrage around the use of the “r-word,” or to cheer acts of kindness toward the disabled, it’s been much harder to get people to focus on isolation, dehumanization, and violence. That’s got to change.

How do we begin to understand the horror that took place in Japan? One problem is that, unlike with other kinds of persistent violence — gendered, homophobic, or racist violence, for example — we don’t have a clear framework for how to link this massacre to a bigger picture. It gets dismissed as a single act by a “deranged” individual, and thus, even as we mourn the fallen, we spread stigma that people with mental disabilities are inherently dangerous. In isolation, it’s just a horror without broader significance.

But the last few days have shown, in fact, that to be disabled in the world is to be vulnerable to violence, even if that violence takes different forms. Here are a few examples.

In Ottawa, Canada, according to witnesses, five police officers beat a disabled Somali-Canadian named Abdirahman Abdi on July 25. Abdi later died. The officers had been called after someone alleged that Abdi had demonstrated “assaultive behavior”; but family and neighbors have told reporters that Abdi was gentle. He was also non-verbal, possibly autistic, and may have had other mental disabilities, but his specific diagnoses aren’t really relevant. After he ran from police, a video shows him being pepper-sprayed, hurled to the ground, beaten, and left lying there for around 10 minutes with his hands cuffed behind his back and his pants pulled down. He died from lack of oxygen to the brain, a condition that stemmed from the beating.

Violence from state actors against people with disabilities is also common in America, as I regularly report in my writing. Most recently, the New York Police Department did nothing as an asthmatic black man died in their custody. The officer who shot Charles Kinsey in North Miami — the black man on his back with his hands up who was shot in a video that went viral — claimed he had meant to shoot the autistic Latino man whom Kinsey was trying to help. Not only is that absurd — Arnaldo Rios, the autistic man, was sitting still and holding a toy fire truck — but it also reveals how easily disabled life is devalued. As the writer Son of Baldwin pointed out, the officer is defending himself from accusations of race-related violence by substituting the more socially acceptable, disability-related violence.

Then there is the violence that happens in state institutions. A picture from Australia showing a shirtless man strapped into a wheelchair and hooded — this was his punishment for spitting — went semi-viral this week. He was in a juvenile detention facility and had suffered long-term abuse both in and out of detention. There have also recently been stories about autistic children put into cages in Australian schools. Meanwhile, in the U.S., I wrote for Pacific Standard about the widespread abuse of disabled children, especially those of color, in American schools around the country.

There’s a much bigger story to be told about dehumanization and its consequences. These awful stories are not anomalies.

This is just a partial list based on the stories that have emerged in the last few days, focusing only on intentional acts of violence by others. There’s a much bigger story to be told about dehumanization and its consequences. These awful stories are not anomalies.

The writer Lydia Brown, one of the most important voices in today’s disability rights movement, responded to the violence in Japan by writing that ableism is not just “bad words. It’s violence.” Brown links the massacre in Japan to ongoing use of electric shocks on autistic children in a Massachusetts school, incarceration of disabled prisoners, and many other ways that individual and structural ableism endangers the bodies and minds of people with disabilities.

When a comedian uses the “r-word,” abled and disabled activists alike unite to shame him and his network into doing better. We have a framework to fight bad speech, and that’s fine. Language matters. I’ve seen a lot less organization — especially from the respectable, big-money charity wing of the disability rights world — when it comes to bullets, knives, electric shocks, or mass incarceration. Surely those matter more than bad words.

For individual acts of violence to spark change, we need to see them not as aberrant tragedies, but rather as part of the structure of society that requires a transformation. We need to make these violent manifestations of ableism visible. We must rally the whole disability rights community — even the well-funded and respectable “charity” wing — to fight all forms of violence. We must also engage the broader civil rights community so that they understand that disability is part of their agenda too.

Happy ADA 26. The work is just beginning.