Important first steps to help the disabled

Legislation about to make public areas less of a harrowing experience

by

Most people don’t bother counting their steps as they negotiate flights of stairs each day. But Sakae Matsuo does.

Matsuo injured his left leg about 30 years ago and with the aid of a cane must overcome hundreds of steps in train stations to reach his Mejiro office in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward from a hotel in Ueno.

“I usually have to climb up and down 500 steps a day while I’m in Tokyo. Tokyo subways have so many stairs,” he complained.

Matsuo, who heads the Japanese Federation of Organizations of Disabled Persons, has long campaigned for legislation to make towns and cities more accessible for the disabled.

“We’re now very pleased because what we have long been requesting has been made into a bill,” he said.

Matsuo is referring to legislation designed to remove “barriers” for disabled people on public transport, which is now under deliberation in the Diet.

The bill obliges the government to draw up basic policies to improve facilities for the disabled and other people who experience difficulty in traveling.

Based on these policies, municipalities would be obliged to hammer out specific programs to create barrier-free areas, such as major train stations, bus stops, airports, hospitals and government buildings.

The bill would also commit public transport operators to comply with barrier-free government standards when building new structures or introducing new train cars, buses, passenger ships and airplanes.

The operators, for example, would have to provide such facilities as elevators, escalators and floor blocks with projections to show ways for the visually impaired, Transport Ministry officials said.

Efforts to get the bill passed received a symbolic boost with the appointment of Eita Yashiro, the first Cabinet minister in a wheelchair.

By visiting government buildings — including the Prime Minister’s Official Residence — Yashiro has helped the public understand how difficult it is for wheelchair-bound people to make their way over hallway bumps or through narrow corridors that usually go unseen.

“I think the time is now sufficiently ripe, given the growing public attention (to the problem),” Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yoshio Mochizuki said during a recent Diet session on the bill.

The bill has been welcomed by a number of other people who experience difficulty in getting about, in addition to the disabled, such as the elderly or pregnant women.

The head of the Transport Ministry’s Transport Policy Bureau, Jiro Hanyu, believes barrier-free standards for facilities would help not only the nation’s 3 million physically disabled but also the 21 million people aged 65 or older and another 1.7 million who are pregnant or injured.

“(The number of people who would benefit) totals 26 million, or about 25 percent of the entire population,” Hanyu told a Diet session.

Some people, however, while praising the government-proposed bill as the “first important step” in improving public transportation systems, are not completely content with it.

Koji Onoue, president of an Osaka-based citizens’ group for the disabled, pointed out that the bill would only oblige transport operators to comply when building new structures, and does not order them to improve existing ones.

Onoue has led a citizens’ movement prompting the Osaka Prefectural Government to create legislation to make public structures barrier-free, collecting signatures from more than 40,000 people.

His efforts bore fruit when the prefecture became, in 1992, the first local government to introduce an ordinance to help make public structures more accessible for people having difficulty traveling.

Unlike the bill now being debated in the Diet, the ordinance obliges owners of existing public structures to draw up improvement plans, in addition to new structures to be built.

In 1991, only 10 percent of the 109 stations of the Osaka municipal subway were barrier-free, but all of the 119 subway stations are now to be remodeled in 2002 thanks to the ordinance, according to Onoue.

If the ordinance required only new structures to be remodeled as the government bill does, only 13 stations would have been improved during the same period, he pointed out.

Onoue also criticized the bill for not specifically calling for the participation of disabled people in the planning or examination of improvement programs.

Matsuo, of the Federation of Organizations of Disabled Persons, pointed out that facilities designed by people who are not disabled often fail to meet the actual needs of people with walking difficulties.

For example, escalators going upward are often found in stations. But climbing down stairs is more dangerous for people in wheelchairs than climbing up, he said.

“We need both escalators that go up and down,” he said.

“We want to be able to participate and express our opinions from the planning stage,” he said. “We can’t make barrier-free facilities the way we’d like them to be if we are (only) asked (for opinions) at the implementation stage.”