Disabled Japanese Are Often Invisible. Will Paralympics Bring Lasting Light?


TOKYO — Before ushering in the Paralympic Games, Tokyo undertook a wave of projects to make itself more accessible to people with disabilities. Nearly all train stations now have elevators, and some have safety barriers along platform edges to protect the visually impaired. About 3,200 newly built hotel rooms are wheelchair accessible, as are stalls in many public bathrooms.

Yuto Hirano, a Paralympic volunteer, welcomes the changes. But as he rolled up one recent afternoon in his wheelchair to a building advertised as accessible, a nearly imperceptible barrier stopped him in his tracks. He bumped against a slight incline leading to the automated front doors and could not get over it without someone pushing his wheelchair from behind.

“There have been three or four occasions where they said, ‘Yes, we can accommodate you,’ but when I get to the location, I actually cannot physically get inside,” said Mr. Hirano, 31, an accountant for a technology company. “So I’ve had to turn around and go straight home.”

The Paralympic organizers have repeatedly promoted the power of the Games to draw attention to the needs not only of elite athletes, but all people with disabilities, speaking loftily of the chance to build a society “free from discrimination or barriers of any kind.”

Advocates, too, have embraced this grand international moment, saying it demonstrates how people who live with physical and mental impairments can achieve at the highest levels. Beyond the inspirational uplift, they say, the infrastructure changes will help improve the daily lives of people with disabilities in Japan.

Yet these advocates also wonder how long the attention will last in a country with a long history of keeping people with disabilities out of sight. In Japan, many children with disabilities are still educated in separate schools or classes, large companies operate segregated subdivisions for employees with disabilities, and people with intellectual disabilities are often warehoused in institutional facilities.

The “successes are hardly coordinated,” said Mark Bookman, a historian of disability in Japan who has lived on and off in the country for 13 years. “If you make a school accessible but there is no workplace waiting on the other end, it doesn’t really matter. If you make the train accessible but the school is not, it doesn’t really matter. If you make an accessible toilet in the building but the building itself is not accessible, it doesn’t really matter.”

“Access is not just a moment where you solve things,” Mr. Bookman added. “Will that process continue after the Olympics, when the international pressure is gone?”

The questions raised by disability activists are not limited to the 9.6 million people in Japan whom the health ministry categorizes as disabled — more than 7 percent of the population. With the world’s oldest population, Japan will need to accommodate an increasing number of residents with the kinds of measures that people with various disabilities rely on to get around every day.

Advocates said the Paralympics offered an opportunity — some would say missed — to hear from a greater range of people on how to improve accessibility. If the Games could have been held with international spectators, they said, it could have provided an instant panel of everyday experts to test whether measures actually worked in practice.

“I wanted spectators, including people with disabilities, to go into Paralympic venues, come stay in Tokyo and say, ‘Hey, this is missing, or this is not good enough,’” Mr. Hirano said, “and for a lot of people to feel that firsthand and put pressure on the government to reform for the better.”

As an example, he pointed to the large, boxy taxis that have been added to cab fleets in Tokyo to increase accessibility. Wheelchair users have said that taxi drivers often do not stop when hailed or ask them to pay extra fees, arguing that rolling out ramps to help them board is cumbersome.

Keisuke Seto, a spokesman for Toyota Japan Taxi, acknowledged some of the complaints but said that “we have reformed the process of taking out the ramp to make it easier for drivers,” reducing it from a 63-step to a 24-step process.

Aside from infrastructure, activists said the Paralympics could motivate people with disabilities who may feel limited in what they can do.

“I know people who have become disabled at some point in their life and were cooped up in their rooms,” said Daisuke Uehara, who won a silver medal in para ice hockey at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. “But by participating in sports, they could realize that they could re-enter society again despite their disability. It gives them a sense of possibility.”

Perhaps just as important is the prospect of opening the minds of able-bodied people.

“Some people think that disabled people cannot do anything,” said Kazuhiro Uno, an English teacher at the University of Tsukuba School for the Visually Impaired, who said some of the school’s alumni were competing at the Games. “I think the Paralympic Games will be a kind of proof or hint for them.”

Even after banning domestic spectators, the Tokyo organizing committee has admitted schoolchildren to some of the Paralympic events. Seeing the sports live, said Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee, would help the children to “realize a more inclusive society.”

Japan is the only nation to host the Paralympics twice. When the Games were held in Tokyo in 1964, then-Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko adopted the Paralympics as one of their primary causes, helping to slowly transform attitudes in Japan.

Hideo Kondo, 86, who competed in six different events in 1964 because organizers had trouble recruiting Paralympic athletes for Japan, remembers that the Games were the first time he had seen people moving around freely and publicly in wheelchairs.

After living and training in a facility that he described as “hidden away from the rest of society,” he marveled at the confidence of competitors from abroad and the buses in the Olympic Village that welcomed wheelchair users.

“I was being kept in a cage,” Mr. Kondo recalled. “The Paralympics was my moment of enlightenment.”

Despite changes over the decades, many advocates say Japan is still behind other major countries. As recently as 1996, Japan’s government sponsored a program under which thousands of people were forcibly sterilized because of intellectual disabilities, mental illness or genetic disorders. And it was only in 2016 that Japan passed an anti-discrimination law, two years after signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.

Some of the lagging attitudes in Japan can be traced to schools, in which children with disabilities are largely excluded from mainstream classrooms. And with government quotas mandating that people with disabilities make up 2.5 percent of the work force of public agencies and 2.3 percent of private firms, some large companies have established separate subsidiaries exclusively for workers with disabilities.

“I think it had been really ingrained in our mind-set that we are different and it’s OK to be segregated,” said Emi Aizawa, who leads global partnerships at Miraino, a consulting firm that helps companies develop better environments for people with disabilities.

The Paralympics offer the promise of turning stigma into celebration and present a story of triumph over adversity. But for the athletes, the best outcome might be that they are viewed as just that — athletes, not people with disabilities.

Takayuki Suzuki, a swimmer who has won five medals for Japan since the Tokyo Paralympics opened on Aug. 24, said he wanted equal treatment.

“My hope,” he said in an interview after he finished swimming a heat of a 200-meter freestyle event earlier this week, “is that sports played by those with disabilities will be received with as much excitement as sports played by those who are able-bodied.”


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