ACCESS A RIGHT, NOT A PRIVILEGE

Disabled fight for freedom of movement

by Catherine Makino

Disabled people should not take trains — at least that’s what Take Maruyama, who needs a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, was told by his family when he was growing up in a small town in Tochigi Prefecture. Fortunately, he didn’t listen.

Fast forward a few decades. On Oct. 1, Maruyama will lead a demonstration of hundreds of disabled people outside Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, in a bid to pressure the government to make public transportation more accessible to those with disabilities.

A major transportation hub connecting many of the city’s main lines, Shinjuku Station is Japan’s busiest train station, with a whopping 1.6 million people passing through it daily. It is also one of the most inaccessible stations for those with disabilities, according to the National Assembly of Disabled People International Japan (DPI), the group sponsoring the demonstration.

DPI says that 70 percent of Japan’s train stations are not accessible to the disabled. In Tokyo, only 43 of 235 subway stations have elevators, and facilities outside the capital are even worse.

The group has organized demonstrations annually for the past 13 years, and each year more people take part. There are 354,000 disabled people living in Tokyo, and Maruyama, now 35, is one of the most vocal.

Maruyama, who works for DPI, said public transportation symbolizes freedom for many physically challenged people. Without transportation, they are left dependent on family members or, worse yet, homebound.

Just 10 years ago, he was living with his family with only dreams of moving to Tokyo. He was, however, always determined to join the outside world, despite his severe disability and the opposition of his family.

“My parents were against me leaving the security of my home,” Maruyama said. “They said the disabled such as me shouldn’t take trains because it was too dangerous. Besides, the transportation was inaccessible anyway.

“But I was young, enthusiastic and wanted to do everything. I knew I had to get out of the rural area. I wanted to make friends, work like everyone else and just wanted to be on my own.”

So, at the age of 25, Maruyama took the plunge and moved to Tokyo.

“Freedom was the most important thing I wanted,” he said. “After I moved to Tokyo, I felt freedom for the first time in my life.”

Today, the boyishly good-looking Maruyama is a married man who devotes his time to helping the physically challenged. He works 10 hours a day and commutes two hours to Tokyo from his home in Hachioji.

Walt Spillum, an American and a volunteer for the handicapped, calls him a remarkable man with a lot of drive to succeed in his relatively new life in the big city.

“He’s become DPI’s manager for these rallies and demonstrations and puts his whole heart and soul in it,” Spillum said. “Last year the demonstration was a big success.

“It means a great deal to him. He’s doing a lot for his cause and for his disabled friends and colleagues and I admire him immensely.”

Someone else Spillum praises is Ryo Misawa, the secretary general of DPI and the founder of the demonstrations. Misawa is a quadriplegic.

Misawa, 58, remembered the first demonstration and the controversy it caused.

“We pointed out to the government officials that the transportation system was inaccessible,” he said. “Their response to that was outrageous. They said we had a bad attitude and needed to change it.”

Nevertheless, a few years of demonstrations have produced some results: The Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Construction have slowly begun to make transportation more accessible, although Misawa says it’s not enough.

Japan’s aging society has caused government officials to recognize the need for accessible transportation, he explained. The number of Japanese 65 or older is 21.9 million. This accounts for 17.3 percent of the population, according to the Management and Coordination Agency.

“Eventually everyone will become old and these changes in transportation will benefit everyone,” Misawa said.

Misawa became paralyzed from a car accident when he was 20 years old. “I was so depressed after the accident that I just slept for the next 10 years,” he said. “I wouldn’t leave my house. I wasted a lot of time. There weren’t any support groups to help me then.”

Misawa said he eventually became tired of his dull life and started working for the disability movement in an attempt to tear down the barriers for the disabled.

Many still remain, he points out, including the attitude of Japanese society, but the demonstrations are slowly helping to change people’s views.

Another person who has been instrumental in bringing awareness to issues pertaining to the disabled is Hirotada Ototake.

Born without arms or legs, Ototake is the author of the best-selling autobiography “Gotai Fumanzoku (No One’s Perfect),” published in Japan in 1998, which helped bring attention to the difficulties faced by the disabled. Fans have bought around 4.7 million copies of Ototake’s story in Japan.

He is now a celebrated author and lecturer, and a part-time reporter for the national TBS TV network.

Although Ototake will not be at the rally, other celebrities and politicians will attend, such as Toshikazu Hori and Eiko Ishige of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Even with these demonstrations and the improvements they have brought about, DPI members agree that they still have a long way to go. But Maruyama and Misawa said that with courage, determination and public actions, the changes will come.