Disability and Deadly Silence

Cover of Planet of the Blind....man and dog....

70 plus years ago the Nazis exterminated the disabled, a matter that still remains obscure to many of our regular customers by which I mean “the public.” (In my experience when you’re forced to use “the public” in any rhetorical sense you’ve already been exiled.) But today I’m not exiled. I’m aware of epochal events, mindful of how they continue to influence us. The murder of 19 disabled citizens in Japan by a man whose manifesto called for the extermination of crippled people garnered less than adequate attention in the world press, a fact that horrified disability rights activists across the globe. In her excellent article “Why did the mass murder of 19 disabled people in Japan barely rate?” Carly Findlay wrote:

“This massacre is Japan’s biggest mass killing since World War II. Yet coming as it did amidst a series of ISIS-related terror attacks and unrest around the world, the media has been relatively quiet about this shocking attack. While I acknowledge the existence of compassion fatigue, I couldn’t help noticing there was little social media solidarity – unlike for Paris, Nice, Orlando, Kabul, Baghdad. There was no hashtag. No public outcry. Not even prayers. When I posted about it on Facebook, people told me they hadn’t heard about it. 

In this age of algorithmic curation, it’s no wonder this hasn’t been popping up all over our newsfeed: barely anyone is talking about it. Very few people are talking about the targeted massacre of 19 disabled people.”

The murders in Japan raised an epochal question: “whose lives are finally, expendable in a neoliberal age of global human devaluation?” Note, I’d not have written this ten years ago as I’d have thought I knew the answer—the “inconvenient lives” of post-colonialism: Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq, but surely I’d not have said indifference to the murders of disabled men, women, and children was a de facto condition. I’d have been wrong ten years ago; insufficiently informed; limited by my own provincial belief that the Americans with Disabilities Act and the advent of Disability Studies portended advancements beyond the Ivory Tower, that the age of disability dignity was arriving, had arrived, would simply get better and better.

In his book The Biopolitics Of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, And Peripheral Embodiment David T. Mitchell uncovers some of the dynamics of neoliberalism’s approach to the disabled body—barrier removal and an understanding of the very real effects of physical incapacity are nowadays routinely encoded into a globalized social contract. What Mitchell aims to show (among other things) is how the lived experience of disablement is not understood—that what we have is tolerance but not a deep embrace of disability based cultural practice. In turn, the absence of this embrace leaves open a broad incapacity (both locally and globally) to understand the alternative body, its diverse embodiment as something at once both real and abiding. The press can’t report on the murders in Japan because it has no vocabulary, no idiom, no reference point for understanding crippled lives as being rich and valuable. No language, no conception. No conception no reporting.

Those of us who teach disability related subjects from an inclusive set of discursive practices acknowledge the opposition: the squinting, rebarbative bio-ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer who has long argued disabled infants lack social value; the contemporary best seller by a middling and moist writer named Jojo Mayes which suggests a paralyzed life isn’t worth living.

We also don’t forget that inclusion within the world of neoliberalism is never an embrace but a form of sufferance. We’re allowed to be here and often barely. This is hardly hysteria. One merely has to consider how recent remains the publication of Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors which stands as a testimony against eugenics and human experimentation—the broader knowledge that disability is fraught with horror still remains poorly understood. Small wonder then, that the words of 26 year old Satoshi Uematsu who stabbed 19 disabled people to death in Japan should haunt the cripple-community, while seeming so foreign to reporters. This is what he wrote in his “manifesto” where he explains his butchery:

“My reasoning is that I may be able to revitalise the world economy and I thought it may be possible to prevent World War III.

I envision a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanised, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.

I believe there is still no answer about the way of life for individuals with multiple disabilities. The disabled can only create misery. I think now is the time to carry out a revolution and to make the inevitable but tough decision for the sake of all mankind. Let Japan take the first big step.”

Consider in turn the following prose from the US Holocaust Museum’s website:

On July 14, 1933, the German government instituted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” This law called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism. With the law’s passage the Third Reich also stepped up its propaganda against the disabled, regularly labeling them “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters” and highlighting their burden upon society.

The term “euthanasia” (literally, “good death”) usually refers to the inducement of a painless death for a chronically or terminally ill individual. In Nazi usage, however, “euthanasia” referred to the systematic killing of the institutionalized mentally and physically disabled. The secret operation was code-named T4, in reference to the street address (Tiergartenstrasse 4) of the program’s coordinating office in Berlin.

Ashes from cremated victims were taken from a common pile and placed in urns without regard for accurate labeling. One urn was sent to each victim’s family, along with a death certificate listing a fictive cause and date of death. The sudden death of thousands of institutionalized people, whose death certificates listed strangely similar causes and places of death, raised suspicions. Eventually, the Euthanasia Program became an open secret.

On August 18, 1939, the Reich Ministry of the Interior circulated a decree compelling all physicians, nurses, and midwives to report newborn infants and children under the age of three who showed signs of severe mental or physical disability. At first only infants and toddlers were incorporated in the effort, but eventually juveniles up to 17 years of age were also killed. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 5,000 physically and mentally disabled children were murdered through starvation or lethal overdose of medication.”


Silence becomes politicized. Since we know the murders of 19 disabled citizens in Japan stand as a heinous violation of human rights, how shall the stasis of quiet best be understood? Could it be as simple as this: that to acknowledge the horror would mean, necessarily acknowledging the terror of crippled refugees; of beggars crawling; of homeless veterans whose wheelchairs have broken down; of the desperate wounded in Gaza? Is it the case that the particulars of human rights are too challenging for journalism in these times?

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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