Dr Sue Porter
Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies
School for Policy Studies
University of Bristol
I’ve been reflecting on responses to the horrific mass attack on Disabled people in Japan on the 26th July (Japan knife attack: stabbing at care centre leaves 19 dead) and what a Disability Studies lens can bring to our understanding of such hate crimes.
Those attacked in Sagamihara were living in a 150 bed unit for people with learning disabilities, and as such we must assume that the majority of residents were removed from their families and geographical communities. We know that a key factor that encourages hate crime is the “othering” of Disabled people, which is reinforced by this sort of segregation. In the UK the Disability rights movement was born out of a desire to resist this sort of institutionalization of Disabled people and campaigned to provide the means for Disabled people to live within our chosen communities, whether independently or interdependently. Since the 1980s this has been at the heart of UK government policy, informing personalisation-related legislation and more recently the Care Act. Even at a time when many question whether austerity-related cuts in funding to local authorities and changes in welfare benefits are undermining the practicality of independent living for growing numbers of Disabled people in the UK, the importance of independent living is acknowledged as key to Disabled people being active members of society. However, amongst people with learning disabilities and a label of challenging behaviour or mental health need, there are still over 2.5k living in institutional settings – Assessment and Treatment Units – at a distance from their home communities, for extended periods and without discharge plans. There is little provision in the community for these individuals and a growing number of mini-institutions (18 or 20 bed) are either in operation or currently being built. So the ‘othering’ and segregation of this particular group of Disabled people goes on in spite of the rhetoric, the policy and the promises made after the Winterbourne View abuse scandal.
At the same time cultural references such as the recent Hollywood film ‘Me Before You’ continue to promote the message that it is better to be dead than Disabled. For some it seems hard to imagine that a life lived with impairment or chronic illness is a life worth living. On 11 September 2015, MPs voted overwhelmingly against legalising assisted suicide, but some media coverage would have you believe that the large numbers of the UK population believe it’s a humane choice to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill or disabled people. Opposition to assisted suicide is not confined to the medical profession and religious groups. Many disabled people, including the very people whom would be most affected by any change in legislation oppose the idea – it’s worth noting that no organization of or for disabled people has campaigned for assisted suicide (including those representing people with Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone disease most often cited as likely to ‘benefit’ from such changes), and that Disabled-led groups like Not Dead Yet UK continue to raise the issue, most recently protesting at the London premier of ‘Me before You’. At the time of writing the state of mind of the perpetrator of the attack in Sagamihara is unclear, what is apparent however is the culpability of the media in perpetrating and endorsing negative narratives of disability, potentially feeding the thinking and actions of some individuals.
The Sagamihara attack was a hate crime undertaken by an individual who denied the value of the lives he took, the 26-year-old former employee of the facility was quoted as saying. “It is better that disabled people disappear”. Hate crimes are defined as any crimes that are targeted at a person because of hostility or prejudice towards that person’s: disability, race or ethnicity, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender identity (UK Equality and Human Rights Commission). The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission report that there has been significant progress in the reporting and recording of disability hate crime since it was first included in national policy in 2008 . Police records show an increase from 800 in the first year to 2,508 in 2015/16. The number of prosecutions for hate crimes against Disabled people in the UK last year was up by 41.3% compared to 2014/15. In 2015-16 there were 941 prosecutions for disability hate crimes. (Action Against Hate, The UK Government’s plan for tackling hate crime. July 2016). Disability hate crime represented 5% of police recorded hate crimes in 2014/15, but this is in contrast to the Crime Survey for England and Wales where disability hate crimes represented one-third of hate crimes. The under-reporting of disability hate crime demonstrates the importance of more victims feeling able to come forward, and the prevailing attitudes and cultural references surrounding us in society risk some Disabled people internalising the negative perceptions of the value of their lives.
Regardless of its form and intention, prejudice always has the potential to cause harm because it reduces the value, status or importance attached to people from ‘the other group’. The ‘othering’ of Disabled people, and the belief that disabled lives are not of value raise fundamental questions about social justice in our society. We need to come together to fight for a global society where diversity is valued and where we can all live free from abuse, fear and oppression. And as the understanding of hate crime increases, it becomes even more important that officials across government engage with those working in the research community and with organisations of Disabled people to build the evidence base for policy interventions.
 Not Dead Yet UK is a network of disabled people in the UK who have joined a growing international alliance of disabled people, who oppose the legalised killing of disabled people. All those involved are disabled people including people with physical and sensory impairments, learning difficulties, and mental health conditions.