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No free ride for foreign drivers with disabilities on Japan’s expressways

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Special To The Japan Times

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British tourist N.W. contacted Lifelines about benefits for disabled drivers in Japan. He is the holder of a Blue Badge, a government-authorized ID that affords certain privileges to British citizens with disabilities, both at home and abroad. Japan is apparently on the list of countries where the ID is recognized, entitling disabled visitors to the same benefits as Japanese residents, and our reader thought this included getting discounts on highway tolls.

I showed my badge at the tolls and it was accepted at first. Then, after a few more times, they asked if they could take a photo of it, as head office had requested this.

When I came to use it again, they told me head office had said they could no longer give me the discount and they could not accept the badge. This is in breach of the treaty signed by Japan giving the same rights to visiting disabled as its own disabled citizens. Japan signed this agreement in 1997.

N.W. is traveling with a Japan-based relative who speaks fluent Japanese, so language issues were presumably not a problem in this case.

In a followup email to Lifelines, N.W. provided a link to ENAT (European Network for Accessible Tourism), an international NPO working to make European tourism accessible to those with disabilities. According to the link, Japan is among several countries that in 1997 agreed to join an already existing group of European nations in extending parking privileges to disabled motorists from abroad. However, use of toll roads was not mentioned on the site (at bit.ly/accessibtourism).

I began by contacting JIL (Japan Council on Independent Living Centers), an organization advocating for those living with disabilities. The person I spoke with had never heard of an international agreement entitling foreign visitors with disabilities to discounts of any kind on travel.

“JIL frequently hosts foreign nationals as part of their advocacy activities, but being in a wheelchair, for example, doesn’t entitle them to a discount on things like train fares,” said the representative. “Only those with Japanese-issued certification for people with disabilities can receive such services.”

I then contacted ENAT to inquire about the details on their website. Managing Director Ivor Ambrose responded by email, confirming that the information only refers to parking and does not cover road tolls.

“If the person who made the enquiry would like to pursue the matter, he might contact the Japanese Embassy in the U.K. on returning to Britain, and try to get an official answer through this channel,” Ambrose said. “Of course that will not help in the immediate situation, but it might give some clarity for future travellers — which is, after all, in Japan’s best interests.”

Ambrose added that ENAT would welcome updated information for their website on the matter.

To sum up, it would seem that the highway tollbooth staff were only doing their job and, rather than being on the receiving end of discriminatory practices, N.W. was in fact rather fortunate to receive discounts for the first part of his trip. Incidentally, even in the U.K., not all toll roads necessarily offer discounts to disabled drivers (see www.gov.uk/driving-medical-conditions/toll-concessions)

Perhaps the bigger issue here is that information on services and benefits for international travelers in Japan appears to be somewhat lacking. Michael Gillan Peckitt, a lecturer at Osaka University who has written for The Japan Times several times, is living with cerebral palsy.

“One of the most important issues with disability is that both the national and local government authorities let it be known what services are available. Japan does seem to be making an effort to be ‘foreigner friendly’ as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approaches, changing signs for tourists and so on, and I hope that the powers-that-be do something similar to make Japan ‘disability friendly’ for 2020,” Peckitt says.

Japan passed a new law in April 2016 banning discrimination against people with disabilities calling on both the public and private sector to better consider their needs. While this is a step in the right direction, advocates say there is still much more to be done to help the 7.8 million Japanese citizens living with some form of disability.

Thank you to Josh Grisdale for assistance with this column. Grisdale runs a comprehensive English website about Japan for foreign visitors and residents with disabilities at www.accessible-japan.com. Your questions and other comments: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp