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Valuing the lives of people with disability

  • 08 September 2016
  Living with a disability can be a real pain. We are constantly being judged and found wanting: by our appearance (never attractive enough), our state of being (we lead lives of unmitigated misery and suffering), our economic cost (leaners and lifters) and our mental competence (can she really talk?).

Public debates on our worth not only dismiss the validity of our lived experience but have profound implications for political and social responses. Even though we live in supposedly more enlightened times, it is a perpetual struggle to have our voices heard and taken seriously. Many people think we can't do anything much at all.

Ever since I was first thrust into the world of quadriplegia 45 years ago, bewildered, grief-stricken and in shock, I have navigated attitudes ranging from deep ambivalence and pity, to open hostility, bigotry, condescension and low expectations.

Although there have been many changes for the better over these decades — in the birth of the disability rights movement; in improved access to the built environment, public transport, education and technology; in anti-discrimination legislation and especially the introduction of the NDIS — the status of people with disabilities remains as a marginalised and often despised group. Many people still believe our lives are not worth living.

Nothing illustrates this more tellingly than the massacre on 26 July this year of 19 severely disabled residents as they slept in their beds at a residential care facility in Sagamihara, Japan. A further 26 were wounded. The perpetrator, Satoshi Uematsu, a former employee sacked for his disturbing views about the residents, upon surrender to the police was defiant and proud of his 'achievements'.

'I did it,' he is claimed to have boasted. 'It is better that disabled people disappear.'

In a letter he wrote to a politician in February, a few months before the crime, he outlined in detail his plot to kill all 260 of the residents and his belief that he should be rewarded for his contribution to Japan and world peace. He described people with disabilities as only creating 'misery' and that they should all be 'euthanised'.

Indeed the Japan Times described the mass slaughter as a 'mercy killing'. I can't see anything merciful about slitting the throats of 45 people! And although the initial story was reported worldwide, unlike with other mass killings there were no candlelit vigils, no fund raising concerts, no photographic honour roll of the dead and wounded, no celebration of