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Is Japan Ready to Host the Paralympics?

For this year’s Blog Action Day, contributors from Global Voices Japan got together online to write about human rights for the disabled in Japan. Is Japan really an accommodating place for people with disabilities? Ayako Yokota and Ryan Ball co-authored this post.

Braille block floor in Japan

Braille block floor in Japan helps guide the visually impaired. By Miki Yoshihito on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Preparations have begun for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The construction of beautiful new architectural structures and facilities is an important part of this preparation, not least to accommodate very diverse visitors to Japan from around the world.

Tokyo is often criticized for poor wheelchair access and for not developing enough facilities for handicapped people. The scarceness of land in a city known for being “compact” may sometimes fall short of offering universal access for people with disabilities.

Kazuko Itoh, the editor of Challengers.tv [ja], a sports news website by non-profit organization STAND, says they no longer present disabled athletes a in category of its own. Partly this it to help prepare the local sports community to host the Paralympics, but also because there appears to be genuine interest. Japan is a hyper-aging society, and this is likely a contributing factor for expanding the idea of universal design to larger public.

Kazuko Itoh writes [ja] in a recent column article:

私は、オリンピックの開催に何の不安もありません。日本、そして東京は、十分にその力があるからです。しかし、パラリンピックはどうでしょう。現状では一般の人たちの理解・興味は、オリンピックには及びません。これからの7年間で、すべきことはここにあると考えています。さらにオリンピック・パラリンピックは決してゴールではありません。より良い社会をつくるスタートです。それができてこそ、真の「平和の祭典」となるのです。パラリンピックを含めた、日本らしい、そして日本にしかできない「2020東京」の開催をしっかり準備していく必要があります。

I am not worried at all about Japan hosting the Olympics. This is because, I am sure that Japan and Tokyo are capable enough of doing so. However, how about the Paralympics? At this moment, most of people are not that interested in nor have a good understanding of the Paralympics compared to the Olympics. This is something I think we should work on changing over the next seven years. In the first place, the Olympics or Paralympics are not the final goal. It is a step towards creating a better society. Only when this is accomplished, can the Olympics and Paralympics realize their true meaning as a “Festival of Peace”. Therefore, Japan has to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics & Paralympics with full attention to detail and create an event that is unique and authentic to Japan.

She quotes Mr. Junichi Kawai, a blind swimmer who has competed in the Paralympics 6 consecutive times and has won a total of 21 medals (5 gold medals, 9 silver and 7 bronze):

誰だって年を取れば、目も悪くなるし、体のいろいろなところにガタがくる。そう思えば、僕たち障害者を“人生の先輩”と思ってもらってもいいんじゃないかな。自分たちが高齢者になった時に僕たちと同じような状況になるかもしれない。だから既にそれを経験している僕たちの意見を聞いてもらえたら、高齢者にも住みやすい社会ができるんじゃないかと思うんです

Everyone finds something wrong in your body when you get old, for example your eyes. Knowing that, how about considering us challenged people as “your life teachers”? When you become old, maybe you will be involved in a situation that is similar to ours. If you listen to those of us who are already ahead of everyone and know what everyone will experience in the future, maybe a society in which elderly people can easily live in will be realized.

Kazuko adds in her post that the benefit of the impaired is equally beneficial to general public, especially when the country faces with a hyper-aging society.

つまり、多くのパラリンピアンや、国内外から観戦に訪れた障害のある人が長期間快適に過ごすことができるまちづくりは、ひいては私たちが直面している超高齢社会のまちづくりに直接つながるということです障害のある人が暮らしやすい日本を見て、高齢になったら、日本で豊かに暮らしたい、と世界中の人に思わせる社会をつくることができるのです。

In other words, creating a city where Paralympic athletes and visitors with disabilities can stay comfortably will directly lead to a city that is better prepared to cater to a hyper-aging society. Once you can make the city comfortable for persons with disabilities, people around the world will nod and say they too want to live a happy life in Japan once they get old.

History of Providing Solutions for the Disabled

In fact, Japan has made efforts to accommodate the disabled since long before becoming the host of the Olympics. It was in Japan that braille block, bumpy tiles set in public areas to mark the path for the blind were first invented.

The braille block was first implemented 46 years ago in Okayama city by a hotelier and inventor named Seiichi Miyake [ja]. After witnessing in person how a visually impaired person was almost hit by a car, Seiichi came up with the idea of braille blocks through discussion with a visually impaired friend, Hideyuki Iwahashi.

Twitter user E-Ken who describes himself as 3D-CAD data architect commented [ja]:

So braille tiles are a Japanese creation!? It’s normal to see them now but I guess it took them a long time to catch on. The people who first spread the word are really great.

Another user, Whisky, also commented [ja]:

Braille tile history… I knew completely nothing about that.  Waiting for the government to act won’t make society a kinder, easier place for people to live; it  takes the strength one person’s heart. I’m moved.

Japan's Ice Sledge Hockey Captain Takayuki Endo with Silver Medal

Japan's Ice Sledge Hockey Captain Takayuki Endo with Silver Medal (March 2010). By Leanne Scherp © Copyright Demotix

Blogger Teevtee, who blogs about amusement parks at Parkeology.com, writes about the myth of Japan being inhospitable for people with disabilities.

In fact Japan has many aids for people with different disabilities. One will find not only the standard Braille in elevators and so on, but also audible beeps at cross sections alerting people when the walk sign is on, and tactile paving throughout most public streets and train stations that guide those without sight where to walk and warn them of intersections. The tactile paving was invented in Japan in the 1960’s and is now ubiquitous throughout the country, not just at crosswalks but throughout huge swaths of cities and public spaces.

New Challenges for Solutions

Japan’s effort to achieve barrier-free, universal access are also seen among technology inventions.

Japan's Ministry of Finance, the Bank of Japan, and the National Printing Bureau is putting together a smartphone app [ja] for the visually impaired to recognize paper money bills.

There is also an iPad app for remote translation of signs implemented by Japanese Railways East [ja] for both foreigners and the visually impaired.

But technology may not be enough. It will take real human awareness to further enable universal design among the Japanese.

The Paralympics Ice Sledge hockey athlete Daisuke Uehara writes in his blog [ja]:

先日練習に行くときに私の目の前で中学生くらいの子供を連れたお母さんが

平気で障がい者駐車場に車を駐車しました。

親が子にモラルの無さを教える今。

パラリンピックも行われるわけですから、

アスリートが「ドリーム」に「チャレンジ」していくように

世界のアスリートを迎える上でこのような恥ずかしい事が平気で出来る人達も

「チェンジ」していく「チャレンジ」が必要ですね。

On my way to practice, I saw a mother with her child in junior high school parking her car at section for a disabled person. [where she shouldn’t be parking her car unless she has a disability]

That’s like teaching her child the exact opposite of morality.

As a country that will host the Paralympics,

we need to change these people who conduct such shameful activities,

and be courageous to challenge just like the athletes challenge their dreams.

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