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Help the disabled, but don’t deny them

by Philip Brasor

Several years ago, the government discussed state-sponsored care for people with disabilities. The idea was to assist mentally and physically disabled people in leaving publicly-funded facilities and entering society; or, at least, that was how it was presented.

Around the time, TV Asahi’s now defunct evening news show “News Station” ran a report on a family whose disabled daughter left the public facility where she was being cared for and returned home. The report showed the difficulties that the family went through to take care of her.

Some nongovernmental groups that support people with disabilities complained, saying that TV Asahi’s report would only force them back into facilities, which they argued were like prisons. However, many people inferred something else from the report, which was that lawmakers didn’t care about people with disabilities, and were simply looking for ways to cut the welfare budget.

Currently, there is discussion in the government of a different bill that seeks to prevent abuse of people with disabilities in facilities and at job sites. According to a recent article in Shukan Kinyobi, such abuse has been the norm for many years because people with disabilities are conveniently kept out of sight of the general public.

The media likes to present exceptional stories of disabled people overcoming enormous obstacles to find success and happiness, or of families making huge sacrifices for their disabled members. However, they rarely take on the subject of society’s responsibility toward people with disabilities as a class of citizens with a common agenda. It partly has to do with a warped sense of political correctness, which says that since it’s impossible to discuss disabled people without a seemingly derogatory mention of their disabilities, it is better not to discuss them at all. But mainly it has to do with the fact that most people simply don’t want to be reminded that people with disabilities exist.

In the documentary film “Watashi no Kisetsu (My Season)” their existence is brought into sharp focus. Filmed at the Dai-ichi Biwako Gakuen, a facility for severely disabled people in Shiga Prefecture, the movie makes it clear that these particular individuals cannot live in society. The severity of their disabilities, whether physical or mental, makes it impossible for them to survive without assistance, in some cases round-the-clock care. But instead of focusing on their triumphs and disappointments, or on the heroic efforts of attendants and family, which is the usual tack taken when disabled people are profiled, the film attempts to show us who these people actually are.

Shiro Myoko, 48, opens the film by saying, “I’m fine,” and closes it with the words “I hate to say goodbye.” In between, we come to understand how he lives. He requires help with bathing, eating and using the toilet, but he can get around in a motorized wheelchair that he operates with his chin.

Myoko, in fact, wants to move to another facility where he will be able to live more independently. His 81-year-old father is against it. The elder Myoko is the head of Biwako’s Family Association, a position he assumed for his son’s sake. If Shiro moves to a new facility the father would lose face, and he scolds his son for his selfishness. “I bought him a personal computer,” the father tells the film crew, “but I never saw him use it.” Later, after the elder Myoko leaves, Shiro says, “Father never changes.”

Myoko’s situation is affecting because he is able to express his frustration without seeming bitter. But real bitterness is even more affecting, as shown in the case of a physically disabled young woman who expresses disappointment with the people she relies on. “I want to say the things I want to say,” she tells the camera. “I want people to listen to me closely.” However, she has been told that such an attitude is ungrateful. Because she needs people to survive, she has lost the right to complain about anything, and she resents it.

The woman’s complaint is an expression of her will, but it is not meant to be taken as a comment on the assistance she receives. Without exception, the employees of the Biwako facility are shown to be caring, dedicated professionals.

The families of the residents are also closely involved with the facility. The documentary spends a lot of time with 51-year-old Komei Bekki, a mentally disabled man who came to the facility when he was 13. Komei’s older brother often visits and takes him shopping, and in one segment he brings him home for the weekend. We have already gotten to know Komei, who in one scene creates small clay sculptures in a furious rush, and in another gets into a disagreement with a resident who cannot speak. His relationship with his brother is intimate in ways only they can understand. “I used to become angry when people discriminated against him,” the brother says, “but I also sometimes wished he didn’t exist.” Biwako removes the burden of Komei’s care from the shoulders of his family without compromising what it is that makes them a family in the first place.

In the movie’s final scene, all 153 residents file past the camera, some by themselves, some with attendants, some with family members. It is a mass of people whose humanity is undeniable, and they all have one thing in common: They need assistance. But they also need to be acknowledged as complete citizens with the right to act and decide as individuals. Addressing both those needs equally and simultaneously shouldn’t be so difficult.