Minae Inahara, 39, is a part-time lecturer at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. With a PhD in philosophy from the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, she has been researching disability on three continents: Australia, Asia and Europe. She is an expert in the exploration of the phenomenology of disability.
A lot of Inahara’s knowledge is firsthand: She has cerebral palsy, which compromises her motor functions, including the volume of her voice. But she has never allowed her condition to stop her from laughing a lot and from making achievements. Her class at Rikkyo University on Disability and Human Rights is an elective course, yet the lecture hall is filled to capacity every week as 300 students listen in silence to her animated explanation and anecdotes. Although her voice does not carry without a microphone, her message gets across loud and clear: Everyone is capable of reaching goals they set for themselves.
Thinking about disability equals contemplating ability. It questions human existence. “Be normal!,” we are told. But what does that mean? We have to free ourselves from the archetypes of what a human being is. I want to share my perspective that every disabled and every abled person has a different view on life. All are worth looking at and all are beautiful.
The Japanese language is much more difficult for me than English is. Until I graduated high school in Japan, I thought I was stupid. I couldn’t write quickly because not only do I have trouble with movement, but I am also left-handed. Writing kanji, the Chinese characters, is next to impossible for me. Also moving my head up and down is awkward, and since Japanese textbooks are printed with the text running from top to bottom, reading them is very difficult. So everything is against me in Japan. But once I was in Australia at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, I realized that I was smart. I could learn, think, progress. My life changed. I stayed there for nine years, alone, studying.
Just because someone looks and acts drunk, it doesn’t mean they are. I am sometimes mistaken for a drunk person because I can’t walk in a straight line and my head and arms jerk in ways that may seem like the movements of someone who is tipsy. I balance myself with my arms. If I were in a wheelchair or holding a cane, my disability would be obvious, but since I can walk without assistance, I don’t look handicapped — just tipsy. Usually I’m not!
The irony is that while technology saves some people, it also creates more disabled people. There are so many handicapped people in Japan because our medical care is so advanced that virtually everyone can survive. On top of that, we can live for a very long time. I was actually born healthy but I was a few weeks early, so I was put in a neonatal intensive-care unit, which was a hot new gadget back then. This incubator broke and I was left without air. That’s why I am handicapped. This would not happen today, luckily.
Ability is very hard to judge. We talk about disability studies but I think we need ability studies as well.
People always pushed me up, so I never had a moment to feel down. My mom always cheered me on and she told me that I could do anything I wanted. My younger sister walked me to school every day. They never stopped believing that I could improve. And I did!
It’s good to be challenged! In high school I was very shy but my friend dragged me into the sensei’s (teacher’s) office. “We’d like to join the martial arts club,” I said. Wakabayashi-sensei replied: “Sure, you can!” He treated me like I was a healthy child. I did bōjutsu (martial arts) for three years and it changed my life.
For me, getting to class is half of the fun. I teach one 90-minute class once a week. Since I live in Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku, I take the overnight coach to Tokyo. I leave Tokushima at 10 p.m. and arrive in Tokyo at around 7 a.m. Once in Tokyo, I ride the trains around till 8 a.m. when the university gates open. It’s fun. At the university, I prepare more for my class, which is actually in the afternoon. I love teaching. After class, I see some friends, then take the 9 p.m. coach back to Tokushima. It’s an adventure.
To have a full-time job, that’s my dream. I hope to live in Tokyo and to invite my husband, Michey, to finally join me in Japan. He is in the U.K. and he has cerebral palsy, too. He also has a PhD and he has a brilliant mind. We are looking for a job for him, too.
We must find our own happiness. Mine is to be useful, so my work is my identity. My life is happy because I can teach. I am so grateful to Rikkyo University for hiring me and to Professor Tetsuya Kono for believing in my ability.
Don’t hide: Be brave! That is my advice to anyone who feels challenged or who has disabled family members or friends. Be a part of life because you are also life. No matter what shape or level, we are all alive for a reason. Let us learn from each other.
Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com Twitter: judittokyo.