Notes from the Obstacle Course
Dr. Michael Peckitt
There are times when, as a disabled person, I have to remind myself to be shocked by what someone might say about my being disabled, or about the topic of disability in general. I have after all, been told on more than one occasion at job interviews, that I could not work for this or that company because of my disability, and have been physically attacked in Britain, my supposed homeland for being a ‘scrounger’, a drain on the economy and nothing more. You get de-sensitized to the constant usage of derogatory terms, and perhaps become overly understanding, after all most people who use terms like ‘retard’, do not usually have evil intent, they simply do not know that it is a bad and hurtful word.
So I cannot say, with all honesty, that I was shocked when I read an article, published in The Japan Times in November, that one Chieko Hasegawa, a vice president of the Tokyo-based gallery ‘Nichido’, and newly appointed to Ibaraki prefecture’s board of education, said at an education policy meeting that:
“We need to drastically change our way of thinking. It’s best if technology can help us know whether our kids are disabled beforehand,”
Hasegawa also stated:
“Once they’re born, it’s a huge burden.”
According to The Japan Times, Hasegawa “then expressed what many took as her hopes that Ibaraki will undertake a policy to ‘reduce’ the number of such children.” Hasegawa had visited schools for children with special needs and concluded that there was a shortage of teachers for those with special needs, and that any schools for children with special needs would “translate into ‘massive budgets.’ ”
The interweb responded to the original reporting of Hasegawa’s comments with the entirely expected, overly exaggerated, though not necessarily unjustified, sense of outrage. The comments on The Japan Times online article compared Hasegawa and Japan’s attitudes in general to that of the Nazi’s towards the disabled, implying that this is why Japan cannot be trusted, after all, look how they treat their disabled people!
My response on reading the article was at best disappointment, but not one of shock or surprise. It maybe that I am just too jaded as an academic philosopher, that I have had to spend, in my daily toil, too much time reading papers and attending seminars that have titles like ‘Why We Must Ration Health Care’, writings that explicitly state, or attempt to argue that lives of the disabled are worth less than the non-disabled. Here is a sample of such ideas from the philosopher Peter Singer writing in The New York Times:
“If most would prefer, say, 10 years as a quadriplegic to 4 years of non-disabled life, but would choose 6 years of non-disabled life over 10 with quadriplegia, but have difficulty deciding between 5 years of non-disabled life or 10 years with quadriplegia, then they are, in effect, assessing life with quadriplegia as half as good as non-disabled life.”
It is reasonable for a parent to ask for pre-natal screening; after all, every parent wants a child with ten fingers and toes, for their child to be ‘alright’ and understandably so, to be the parents of a non-disabled child is a perfectly reasonable desire. And I can tell you from experience, having a disability kind of sucks, I really rather not have a disability.
However it is different if someone sitting on a board of education encourages such tests, and especially worrying if that board member believes that pre-natal screening would prevent disabled people from being born.
My disability, which is cerebral palsy, specifically left sided spastic hemiplegia, could not have been detected by pre-natal screening; it was caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain as I was emerging from my mother’s womb. If my parents had access to pre-natal screening technology, the tests would have revealed no problems, I would still be here, writing about Japan, sorry about that.
It is not just that Hasegawa’s pre-natal screening plan would be ineffective; it’s that it highlights a prejudice; it reminds us that disabled people are simply not valued as human beings. This, of course, is not a prejudice specific to Japan, but is common to the whole world. For example in my country of origin, which is Britain, it was recently in The New Statesman reported that:
“Between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died of a chronic or terminal illness, shortly after being found ‘fit for work.’ ”
I have no time for what I like to call faux shock. Some might read Hasegawa’s remarks and exclaim ‘that’s a terrible thing to say, who could think such a thing?’ I find such a response, whilst I am sure it is honestly felt, to be naïve, It simply cannot be shocking or horrific that someone would view the lives of disabled people as a “burden”, as treating disabled people as a burden is demonstrably, far too commonplace.
Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. He runs the Japan and disability related website ‘The Limping Philosopher’ (https://thelimpingphilosopher.wordpress.com) and you can find him on Twitter @Peckitt. Check out his ebooks on Amazon.