After a man drove a truck into tourists on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, last month, killing eighty-four and injuring at least 300 others, photos of victims appeared on websites and in print publications—a healthy-looking blonde-haired family in white shirts and sunglasses, photographed against the sea; a little boy playing at the edge of the water; two young women, embracing on a bench. Their names were published. Their jobs. Reading through the list of the dead, I discovered that one woman, Rachel Erbs, was involved in her town’s basketball club.
“Look what that terrible man did!” the list seems to say. “These people were vibrantly alive, they were beautiful and active and their deaths are a tragedy! They should be remembered by all, and mourned!”
On July 27, twenty-six-year-old Satoshi Uematsu, a former employee of Tsukui Yamayuri En, a care facility for the disabled in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, broke into the residential area in the early hours of the morning. After restraining staff members with zip ties, he proceeded to slash the throats of disabled residents, killing nineteen and injuring twenty-six. His motive, according to a letter that he wrote and sent to House of Representatives Speaker Tadamori Oshima, was to relieve exhausted parents and unenthusiastic caregivers of the burden of looking after the disabled.
Who were the victims? What were their names? What did they look like? What kinds of activities did they enjoy?
According to a report in The Japan Times, “The nine men and 10 women killed ranged in age from 19 to 70. Police have not disclosed their names on the grounds that their relatives do not wish to have them identified due to their disabilities.”
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me. After living in Japan for over twenty-eight years, over seventeen of them as the mother of a daughter with multiple disabilities, I know that there is still stigma attached to people with disabilities, and that they continue to be marginalized. As my own daughter nears high school graduation, she has been visiting various welfare-supported work centers to see where she might fit in. I couldn’t help noticing that many of these centers are in remote locations—i.e. outside the metropolis, in the middle of a stretch of rice paddies—and I have been told that people in one neighborhood were opposed to the establishment of a group home for disabled adults in their midst. I couldn’t help thinking that while my very social daughter may not be capable of passing the difficult exams that lead to employment required by many companies, her abilities far exceeded what these work centers would require of her. I can’t help thinking that there are many others who are, yes, looked after, but who fail to reach their potential, who could contribute more greatly to society with the proper support. I believe that if individuals with disabilities are not hidden away but better integrated into mainstream society, attitudes toward them will change.
The first step toward normalization is visibility.
How can we mourn those who are denied their humanity? Show us their faces. Tell us their names.
About the Author
Suzanne Kamata is the author and/or editor of seven books including the anthologies Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs and Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, and the award-winning novel Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible. She is the Fiction Editor of Kyoto Journal, and Fiction Co-editor of literarymama.com. She earned an MFA from the University of British Columbia, and currently teaches at Tokushima University in Japan. Follow her on Twitter at at @.