CHANGING VIEWS

Overcoming blind discrimination

by Catherine Makino

In the past 10 years, 71-year-old Atsuko Yasumoto has fulfilled many lifelong dreams. She has swum with dolphins in Hawaii, climbed mountaintops in Japan, traveled to the United States, and won first prize in a ballroom dance contest in Tokyo.

These feats, spectacular for most senior citizens, are almost miraculous for Yasumoto: She accomplished all of this and more as a blind person.

Yasumoto was not always the confident person she is now. Ten years ago, just after a botched eye operation that left her blind, Yasumoto wanted to commit suicide. She crawled around her apartment in Tokyo looking for the knob to turn the gas on but she couldn’t find it.

Yasumoto finally pulled out of her crisis almost two years later while attending a government rehabilitation center in Shinjuku, where she learned how to read Braille and how to use a white cane as well as basic daily living skills. She stayed for 20 months while most patients usually stay only one.

“When I laughed for the first time 10 months later everyone clapped,” Yasumoto smiles at the memory. “I finally passed through that dark tunnel and saw the light at the end of it. I accepted the state I was in.”

But she doesn’t accept the discrimination blind people in Japan have to face.

“Blind people in Japan tend to lead very, very sad lives,” Yasumoto said. “There are no jobs for the blind except massage and acupuncture. In America there are 600 blind lawyers but not one here.

In order to combat the discrimination and the social isolation blind people in Japan face, Yasumoto and some friends formed the advocacy group Hibiki no Kai (Echo Club) for the visually impaired five years ago. They go to park picnics, music concerts and art museums. They also meet with local government officials once a year to voice their needs.

One of the reasons the blind in Japan face such a difficult struggle, Yasumoto explained, is because Japan does not have an equivalent to the American Disabilities Act which in 1992 beefed up U.S. laws against discrimination.

The impetus to start the advocacy group began when she met 50-year-old Fumihiko Sato, who was blind and confined to a wheelchair.

“He was living a lonely life in Tokyo with no friends,” Yasumoto said. “Because he was in a wheelchair, the government wouldn’t provide him with a guide to go outside. Blind people have guides sent by the government to take us places like weddings, funerals, hospitals and city hall.”

Yasumoto decided to go to Shibuya City Hall with three friends and petition the local government to provide Sato with a guide. Out of that incident, Hibiki no Kai was born. The group now has more than 100 members, and subsidiaries are beginning to spring up.

Yasumoto became sightless after a 1989 operation that was meant to improve her weak eyesight. She was born with retina disease and was already wearing thick glasses.

“A friend told me about a famous eye surgeon in Tokyo who could improve my eyesight,” she said. “I was so excited that I decided to have the operation the following week.”

After the surgery, she stood by the hospital window, took her eye mask off and went into shock when she realized she couldn’t see anything.

“I was in the dark,” Yasumoto recalled. “The doctor and nurses refused to tell me anything. And then after two months of followup examinations, the doctor told me not to come back or call anymore.”

To this day she doesn’t know what happened. It was a traumatic experience for her. She suffered shock, despondency and depression. Although she was urged to sue the doctor, Yasumoto was so overwhelmed by her blindness that she couldn’t do it.

“I couldn’t do anything by myself anymore,” she says. “Everyday I thought that it was useless to live. I felt most comfortable at night when everyone else was the same.”

She isolated herself. She resigned as president of the printing company she and her late husband owned, and she stopped going out for dinner with friends because her blindness resulted in clumsy table manners.

Not until she learned how to overcome difficulties caused by blindness in the rehabilitation center did Yasumoto pull out of her isolation and depression.

Now, she says, she has much to live for. With a vibrant personality and a winning smile, she often makes her way through the narrow streets of Shibuya in Tokyo with her white cane. On these sightless outings, she sees that much work needs to be done.

One of the most important improvements needed for the blind in Japan is to revamp street signal lights. Unlike in the U.S. where pedestrian crossing signals produce loud beeps for the blind, most Japanese signals don’t carry sound. This limits mobility for the blind in Japan.

Seeing-eye dogs, regular partners of the blind in the West, are not common here. Only around 800 of Japan’s visually impaired have them.

Besides working as an advocate for blind independence, Yasumoto thinks there should be more career options for the blind than acupuncture and massage.

The Braille Federation of the Blind Center in Tokyo agrees. There are more than 350,000 blind people in Japan and only 30 percent of them are employed, according to Mika Shimada of the federation.

Walt Spillum, an Asian representative for Open World Magazine, a quarterly issued by the Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped, and a resident of Japan for 30 years, says the situation for the blind in Japan is about 40 to 50 years behind Europe and North America.

“The Japan Federation of the Blind, JFB, is also an old-fashioned government bureaucracy,” Spillum said. “There are no individual memberships and little individual participation. There seems to be little, if any, grass-roots activity under JFB. As a member of the American National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind, I tried to join JFB but was not able to do so.

“There are some local government efforts in Tokyo such as the Tsukuba School for the Blind, which has facilities for teaching computers including e-mail. But the main efforts seem to be teaching massage and acupuncture as occupation training. Junko Seiki, a 29-year-old woman who has been blind since she was 3, says she has felt the discrimination of being “separated from society.” She graduated from a University in Tokyo and went to Overbrook International School for the Blind in Pennsylvania, where she majored in English. Yet, she can’t find a job as an English teacher.

“Companies won’t hire me,” she said. “The seeing and visually impaired need to spend time together. People don’t know us. But we can do a lot of jobs if we are given the chance.”