It is the early hours of the morning and I’m sat out in the open air. My eyes are closed and my hand is clutched tightly around a car of lukewarm beer. Frankly, I’m feeling a little disorientated.
Just an average Saturday night in Roppongi, you might think. Actually, I’m about 300 km further south on the small island of Hachijojima. I have my eyes closed because the house rule in this bar is that all patrons put themselves in the shoes of the bar staff, who are blind. I am drinking under the stars because I’m at Universal Camp 2008, a three-day activity program for those both with and without disabilities.
Over 140 people attended, about one third of whom had a disability of some kind. The aim of the camp was to give all participants a chance to learn about the practical and social problems caused by particular disabilities.
“Camping is a little inconvenient compared to ordinary life. It encourages everyone, disabled and able-bodied, to think about the different challenges different people face,” explained organizer Kayo Iizuka. “Hachijojima is a beautiful place too.”
Participants came from as far away as Hokkaido, Kyushu, Thailand, the U.K. and America. Some campers had mobility challenges, some hearing and sight impairments, some learning difficulties, and some were recovering “hikikomori,” or shut-ins.
As one of the organizers explained just after we arrived, questions about all aspects of disability were encouraged, even “How do you go to the toilet?” or “How do you have sex?” Of course no one had to answer, but the beautiful location far away from the Tokyo sprawl encouraged an uninhibited atmosphere and some frank conversations.
“I have learned a lot of things, even about other people who use wheelchairs,” said Thai-born participant Photjanakorn Ritthiporn. A Japan resident for 21 years, Ritthiporn first came to Japan to receive treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.
“I wanted to learn about diversity,” said Masumitsu Mizukami, who works at a management training company in Tokyo. A year ago his firm started an online course in “diversity management.” It mostly covers gender issues, but also disability.
“In the bar where everyone was either blind or blindfolded, one thing that occurred to me was that I had no idea exactly who was listening to what I said,” commented Adam Fulford, another participant. “(Another time) I saw a blind person terrified by the presence of a flying insect. I saw people happily conversing at 50 meters using sign language.”
At Bar in the Dark, my first problem was how to get my beer safely into a glass without it overflowing. I settled for putting my grubby finger over the rim of the glass and waiting for it to get wet. I asked the barman, who was blind, what he does. He said he could tell when his glass was full by the weight.
There was another bar on camp with a similar theme, but for those with hearing impairments. Drinkers communicated via small white-boards and sign language. During a tipsy conversation I acquired a rather random sign language vocabulary: “My name is Tony,” “train,” “drunk,” “e-mail,” and “happy.” The conversation concluded around 3 a.m. when the morning dew made the white-boards and pens impossible to use.
The central event of the camp was something called “Universal Communication,” an afternoon listening to short talks by participants. One man who was blind was asked what his dreams “look” like. He replied they were like a radio program. A deaf participant explained how signing is handy for saying goodbye though the windows of a departing train.
Residents of a care home on the island also took part. A young man with learning disabilities wept as he told how he’d fallen for a girl who worked in a cabaret bar. She said she could never go out with a disabled person, and left the island soon after.
The camp was a chance to learn about the changing situation of disabled people in Japan. Ritthiporn says some things have improved over the two decades he has lived here. “People don’t stare as much as they used to,” he said.
He was able to get a driving license, which has made a huge difference to his life, as buses and trains were too tiring. Now he works in a home for the elderly.
But he said it is still difficult for other disabled people to find work. Companies make feeble excuses; for example, that they don’t have a disabled toilet.
“There are a lot of disabled people who want to work but can’t,” he said.
“In the past there was a very clear dividing line between disabled and able-bodied people in Japan; slowly that is changing,” said NTT employee Nozomu Ishimaki. “Disabled people themselves are keener to work and participate in society rather than staying in one place and just receiving help.”
Ishimaki, 23, who has cerebral palsy, said the 2005 Services and Support for Persons with Disabilities Act has encouraged some disabled people to find work — albeit by the heavy-handed expedient of slashing benefits for all.
But the biggest change is in the mind-set of the able-bodied, he said.
“Able-bodied people in Japan are beginning to think of people with disabilities not just as ‘the disabled,’ but as human beings who can do something for society.”
Universal Camp would love hear from anyone interested in participating in next year’s trip in September, as well as other activities. Please e-mail email@example.com or phone (03) 5460-8858 for details. Japanese and English speakers welcome. Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org