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Is ‘disability’ still a dirty word in Japan?

by Tomoko Otake

Mainstream society is slowly, but slowly, opening up to the physically ormentally impaired, as officialdom appears happy with a ‘steady’ approach

The numbers are staggering: Roughly one in 20 people in Japan has some disability or another.

Government statistics show that, out of a population of around 127 million, some 3.5 million are physically disabled, 2.5 million are mentally ill and 500,000 are mentally disabled. That’s a total of around 6.5 million individuals.

But where are they? Granted, we see more station elevators, wheelchair-accessible toilets and buses with passenger lifts nowadays. Such facilities are visible, but many people hardly ever encounter those who use them — let alone anyone with non-physical disabilities. In fact, apart from people with disabled family members or friends, most Japanese quite likely live their whole lives without ever interacting with their disabled fellow citizens.

In addition, workplace depression is also a growing but often invisible social problem gripping the country. There are, too, tens of thousands of people who might look fit and well but suffer from health problems, ranging from chronic lethargy to digestive ailments.

Yet, although any of us might become disabled at some point in our lives, many people barely spare a thought for such friends and neighbors. Despite improvements in such areas as “barrier-free” infrastructure over the last few decades, many people with disabilities are systematically rendered invisible by and from society, says Koji Onoue, secretary general of DPI-Japan, a confederation of groups of disabled people, and the Japan chapter of 120-plus-member Disabled People’s International based in Winnipeg, Canada.

“Japan is extremely behind [other countries] in the inclusion of the disabled in jobs and education,” he says.

Onoue, who was born with cerebral palsy and has been wheelchair-bound for 22 years, points to Japan’s public school systems which, early in their lives, shunt people with disabilities into “special schools” that accommodate only the disabled.

Onoue notes that to this day the education ministry remains firm in its stance that education systems for disabled and non-disabled people should be separated. In actual practice, though, it is up to local boards of education — not the disabled people or their guardians — to decide whether they attend special schools or regular schools along with non-disabled pupils, he said. Which means that in the end, neither disabled people nor their guardians have any say.

More than half of graduates of special schools currently go into what officials call “welfare-like employment,” channeling them into thousands of state-accredited or privately run rehabilitation centers nationwide. These centers offer no labor rights protection and on average pay a meager wage of less than 30,000 yen per month, making it impossible for the disabled to live independently.

Many experts in the field think that such a poor state of affairs — one that prevents the disabled being employed by regular businesses in Japan — is due to a lack of awareness and knowhow on the part of employers as to how to utilize their talents.

Thirty years ago the Japanese government passed the Law for Employment Promotion, etc.of Persons with Disabilities (sic) making it mandatory for companies to ensure a certain percentage of disabled people in their workforce. Such a quota system is common in many advanced countries, besides the United States or Britain, which instead ban job-related discrimination against the disabled. In Japan the law stipulates that 1.8 percent of the positions at all private-sector companies employing 56 or more people should be filled with people with disabilities. For national and municipal governments, as well as government-affiliated organizations, the quota is 2.1 percent.

Not once in the last 30 years have the quotas been achieved in Japan. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, as of June 2005, only 42.1 percent of private-sector companies complied, along with 44.8 percent of state-affiliated organizations and 77.5 percent of national and municipal governments.

Fuminobu Okabe, associate professor of law at Soka University in Tokyo, the author/translator of several books in this field, says Japan’s performance is “embarrassing” by global standards, because its quotas are lower in the first place than those of most other OECD countries, which range from 2 to 7 percent.

“In a 2004 OECD report on disability-related policies, many countries submitted data,” he said. “Japan didn’t provide any data at all. That speaks volumes about the lack of policies the government can present to the world.”

Onoue also says the law is toothless and full of loopholes, pointing out that it sets no fines or criminal penalties for companies failing to comply. They can be let off the hook merely by paying 50,000 yen a month per “quota person” not employed.

Meanwhile, the “welfare-like employment,” which provides jobs such as printing and baking, and which was originally meant to be a temporary arrangement for disabled people to prepare for regular employment, are in reality the only destination for many, Onoue says.

Labor ministry officials insist that in recent years they have increased pressure on companies to comply by setting various numerical targets and repeatedly ordering them to improve their performance — then disclosing the names of companies that would still not come in line.

At present, though, the ministry has set the paltry goal of “aiming to raise the percentage of companies meeting the 1.8 percent quota [from the current 42.1 percent] to 50 percent by 2008.”

Asked why the bureaucrats are not acting more aggressively, one senior official at the ministry said they prefer a “steady” approach.

“The 50,000 yen fee companies must pay for not hiring a disabled employee is not a fine,” said Eri Nakajo, deputy director of disabled workers’ affairs division at the labor ministry. “We don’t think raising the fee would necessarily lead to higher employment rates, either.”

Whatever the ministry appears to “think,” combative approaches have worked so far, such as the DPI’s campaign for disclosure of the names of companies failing to meet the quota. In September 2003, the Tokyo Labor Bureau made public the names of 9,040 companies failing to comply with the law. That followed a Cabinet Office order to grant disclosure, which overruled rejections from both the bureau itself and the labor ministry.

This was a turning point for labor authorities, who now enforce the employment law more rigorously, says Hitoshi Shindo, president of General Partners Co., a Tokyo-based employment agency specializing in placing disabled people with companies. In the last three years, he has introduced 500 people to 750 companies in the financial, manufacturing and other sectors.

“We are seeing a tremendous change in the attitude of companies, compared with the situation 10 or 15 years ago,” Shindo said. “Companies are changing also because of pressures [from analysts and stakeholders] to improve their CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] standing.

“But many companies are struggling to figure out in what manner they can let these people work.”

The answer may be to just “go for it.”

Major retailer Uniqlo Co. decided in 2001 that it would hire at least one disabled employee per store. Today, 7.4 percent of the company’s jobs, which number more than 600, are filled by people with disabilities, who are primarily performing clerical and back-office duties.

“The key is to decide, at the top management level, to hire them — period,” said Uniqlo spokesman Terunobu Aono. “Companies should not let prejudice make them think that hiring people with disabilities will hurt efficiency. Special support to accommodate their needs? We regard our [disabled] employees in the same way we regard tall or short employees. If they are too short, we would just give them a stepladder.”

Perhaps, after all, the tide is slowly turning for those with disabilities wishing to work. The Services and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act has been implemented since April, allowing disabled people to receive custom-made job planning and support for each individual. But in order for companies and the public to become more disability-friendly, inclusion of the disabled in society from their early lives is a must, argues Onoue, 46, who says he wholeheartedly cherishes the friendship he built with non-disabled people when he attended junior and senior high schools.

Back then, discrimination against the disabled was much more explicit, he explains, and it was extremely rare for handicapped people to be accepted at regular schools. However, he was finally admitted to a school in Osaka after applying three times — but in return had to promise school officials in writing that he would cause no problem for teachers and classmates, and would never ask for handrails.

In school, Onoue says he was always late for music and art classes, which were held far away from his home room. Then after a while a classmate who’d noticed that offered to carry him on his back. Onoue declined — with that written pledge in mind.

But then the friend said, “Come on! Don’t treat me like a stranger. We’re friends, right?”

“I felt so happy after hearing his comment; it meant so much to me,” Onoue says with a sparkle in his eyes. “I really felt right then that people can’t be so bad after all.”

Sadly, though, the vacant elevators at stations and seldom-used special-needs toilets seem to show that all too often exchanges like that, which make us human, are being missed.

For other related stories in our package on “Disability in Japan”, please click the following links:
Blind doctor finds new ways of seeing
Unseen sufferers take self-help route
Teamwork trounces deafness