Japan removing physical barriers to disabled, but prejudices remain
Written by tokyoclub on September 4, 2021
Although the Tokyo Paralympics have drawn praise for embodying the ideals of an inclusive society, in terms of social attitudes, Japan appears a long way from achieving the “barrier-free spirit” the government has pushed.
Opportunities for everyday interaction between the able-bodied and disabled remain scarce in Japan, and friction between the two groups exists. So, while Paralympic venues and public transportation have made strides in hardware, much remains to be done in upgrading the population’s mental software.
Photo taken in December 2019 shows a wheelchair seating area at the National Stadium in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples’ International)(Kyodo)
Since Tokyo won the bid to host the Paralympics, accessibility laws have been amended in 2018 and 2020, mandating hotels and public transport facilities eliminate barriers, while requiring their employees to assist the disabled.
Such measures come under the heading of “reasonable accommodations” in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which seeks to ensure that all people have equal rights, including accessibility. Japan ratified the convention in January 2014, four months after Tokyo won the right to host the Olympic and Paralympic games.
Public entities in Japan are currently required to uphold these standards, and the private sector will be obliged to do so by 2024.
Tokyo’s newly built National Stadium, the Olympic and Paralympic games’ centerpiece, incorporated these ideals in its design.
“It’s a wonderful stadium matching the world standard,” Satoshi Sato, the secretary general of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples’ International, said.
The venue is equipped with some 500 wheelchair seats, several types of toilets for the disabled such as colostomy users as well as a small room where developmentally and mentally disabled can achieve calm.
But while top-down efforts to improve accessibility have produced concrete physical results, they have not transformed the way some able-bodied Japanese view the disabled. This gulf was laid bare when a columnist with severe disability from the genetic disorder known as brittle bone disease, was attacked online for a blog post in April.
Natsuko Izena, 39, wrote she was “refused passage by JR” after a Japan Railway company declined her request to dispatch staff to assist her out at an unmanned station. One critic ridiculed her, mocking her words and deeds as that of “Ms. Disabled.”
“I simply want the same transportation options the able-bodied enjoy to be recognized as one of our rights, rather than something bestowed upon us by others base on their benevolent wishes to ‘be kind to the disabled,'” she said.
“Anyone can become disabled and everyone ages. I want a society in which all sorts of people can live comfortably,” she said.
As more people enter the gig economy or endure economic hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online attacks are directed towards the disabled, with people decrying their welfare benefits and discounts on services as “favoritism,” while citing their own perilous standard of living.
Chuo University Professor Taro Miyamoto, well-versed in policies for an inclusive society, urges anyone with or without disability to “signal SOS” and ask for help when in difficult circumstances.
“It’s important to have the perspective that what we call “self-help” begins with public assistance, mutual cooperation and solidarity between people,” Miyamoto said.
Nao Ozawa, the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center Chief Executive Officer, believes Japan’s becoming the Paralympic host raised awareness of many adults in the country.
“We have held lectures but also organized sports days at companies comprised solely of parasports, and there were around 70 applications per year before the pandemic,” he said. “It’s important to provide that point of contact (with the world of disabled).”
Parasport education has taken place in all of Tokyo’s elementary and junior-high schools ahead of the games, said Katsura Enyo, the deputy director general of the metropolitan government’s Tokyo 2020 Preparation Bureau.
She hopes the games provide new impetus for the disabled to integrate into society.
“It’s important to see disabled people around town as something normal. We see more of them than 10 years ago, but lots of them do not leave their homes,” she said.
“Some who attended parasport trial classes told me it was their first time outside in months. Whether it’s sports, arts or some cultural activities, it’s important to provide something fun for them as a catalyst.”
Enyo emphasized that barrier-free facilities and parasports help not only the disabled but everyone in the nation’s aging society. Hidefumi Takahashi, the vice president of the Japanese Paralympic Committee, concurred.
“We made a slope at Zenkoji temple ahead of the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. The sign says it is for the wheelchair users, but now they are used most by young couples pushing strollers, and the elderly using the handrails,” Takahashi said.
“Freeing up the barriers in people’s minds has yet to be achieved, but there are changes, especially among children. The Paralympics is an opportunity to think about what kind of society we pursue; one where we are all different and all wonderful, and another where everyone is the same.”
“In Japan, everyone is taught not to do things that are different from people around you, and it’ll all be about making people realize that it’s good to understand all our differences.”