Japanese society still not fully accepting of people with disabilities

The curtains fell on the Tokyo Paralympic Games yesterday after 13 days of competition, leaving Japan to reflect on the legacy of its capital being the first city to host the event twice.

Despite this honour and beyond the glory of the medals, there is unease that with the Paralympics over, the spotlight on issues that need to be addressed will vanish.

According to Health Ministry data from June, there are 9.65 million people - or about 7.7 per cent of the population - who are disabled in Japan.

Of these, 4.36 million have physical disabilities, 1.09 million have intellectual disabilities, and 4.19 million have mental illness.

"What matters is what happens from here," Japanese Paralympian triathlete Mami Tani, 39, said last week. "It is time for all of us - companies, schools and local communities - to take action and raise our awareness on diversity and inclusion even further. That should be the real meaning of hosting the Paralympics."

People with disabilities have largely stayed hidden from view in a homogeneous society that prioritises fitting in, even if acceptance has gradually increased as Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko had, as Crown Prince and Crown Princess in the 1964 Games, sought to raise social awareness of their plight.

To be fair, Japan has made great strides to improve the infrastructure before the Games, undertaking a string of projects to become more barrier-free.

Elevators and escalators were installed in train stations, while safety platform barriers have been constructed in some stations following incidents of the blind falling onto the tracks.

Because of amended accessibility laws, about 3,200 new hotel rooms are wheelchair-accessible, while many have also been refurbished to be barrier-free. Public entities are mandated by law to uphold standards while the private sector must do so by 2024.

And yet there are many ways these positive changes are cosmetic, as prejudice still runs deep.

Despite a large fleet of new "universal design taxis" that can accommodate wheelchair users in Tokyo, anecdotal accounts show that drivers often do not stop for such passengers. Some are even asked to pay extra by the drivers for the hassle of having to roll out the ramps.

Japan's rapid depopulation has caused hundreds of train stations to be unmanned, which is a problem for wheelchair users, as Ms Natsuko Izena, 39, noted in a blog post in April. Ms Izena, who has brittle bone disorder, highlighted how East Japan Railway staff had advised her not to travel to her intended destination as it was an unstaffed station, and to take a taxi instead. Yet the recounting of her experience led her to be attacked online as being "self-entitled".

Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples' International secretary-general Satoshi Sato pointed out that able-bodied people rarely encounter the disabled in their daily lives, given that those with disabilities often study in different schools and might even be segregated at work.

Sociologists note that the needs of people with disabilities and those of the elderly often coincide. As such, with the world's fastest greying population, Japan will eventually have to face up to the need to become more barrier-free and embody the ideals of a more inclusive society.

Small and medium firms have begun to look at how they can support people with disabilities. RDS Design is building wheelchairs that have been used in the Paralympic Games, with para-athlete Tomoya Ito part of the project team.

The business has designed advanced robots and everyday products like home electronics and furniture, and president Anri Sugihara wants to build technology that can address society's needs.

"If we can come up with sensory technology that, say, can sense in advance if an elderly person is about to fall - since they will not be able to catch their fall easily - this will prevent consequences and help solve social issues," he said.

Mr Junichi Kawai, chairman of the Japan Paralympic Committee, said: "Society must be like fruit punch, which makes the most of one's individuality, instead of mixed juice where uniqueness and differences are blended together."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2021, with the headline 'Japanese society still not fully accepting of people with disabilities'. Subscribe