Canoeing group offers disabled people recreation, not rehabilitation

OSAKA — On a riverside road, a man in a wheelchair tries to unload a canoe tied to the top of his car. A stranger stops his vehicle nearby that also carries a canoe, walks down to him and offers to help. They later go to the river together, chatting about their vessels and currents. This is the kind of exchanges Yoshiro Yoshida, 44, dreams of.Yoshida, who is wheelchair-bound, hopes such scenes take place at canoeing spots all over the country and spread to other fields. “There is nothing special (about it),” said Yoshida, a founding member and current chairman of Syogaisha Canoe Kyokai (Association of Disabled Canoeists), which has about 180 members, including around 50 disabled people. By promoting canoeing by the disabled, Yoshida hopes to help break the mold that is often imposed on them.Established in 1995, the association sends out information on canoeing, compiles manuals and organizes nationwide canoeing meets. As a first step, group members will give a demonstration performance at the annual National Athletic Meet to be held in Osaka later this year.The group accepts canoeists either with or without physical disabilities. It is different from many other sports organizations that place emphasis on teaching athletes only to win in competitions, but it also does not support a commonly held view that sports for the disabled are for their rehabilitation. “We have the right to enjoy sports. We have the right to play,” Yoshida said. “People keep telling us to work hard and try hard. No one encourages us to play. Our purpose is paddling together and playing together.”It appears there is a long way to go until his dream comes true in this country, where social infrastructure is far from being friendly to the disabled. Here, the public seems intent on segregating and overprotecting them. Yoshida says disabled people are often confined to the stereotype created by those without disabilities: that they are kind, good-natured and quiet, and always need help. Nevertheless, Yoshida is sure the number of disabled who enjoy canoeing and other outdoor activities will grow in the near future, and said many of his disabled friends feel likewise.