My 8-year-old wanted to use my computer. “I need to search the Internet for a picture of a kurumaisu,” he said, in his usual blend of English and Japanese. Never mind that both his parents are American; he’s lived in Japan since he was 5 and attends a Japanese elementary school. This qualifies him as a chanpon meijin (expert at mixing up the languages).
“A wheelchair? Why do you need a picture of a wheelchair?” I asked.
“Because we’re studying bariafurii in school,” he answered. Bariafurii? Bariafurii? It took several seconds for the overtaxed part of my brain that handles language to convert this into something recognizable. “Oh! ‘Barrier free!’ You’re studying how to make places accessible for people with disabilities.”
“Like I said, Mom,” he said dryly. Nothing wrong with his English.
“Well!” I chirped, trying to regain my dignity by providing a good idea. “If you’re studying accessibility, why don’t we see if Atsuko will speak at your school?”
Atsuko Kuwana is a Japanese friend from our old school in the United States, where she’s lived for more than 20 years. Every summer she returns with her son for a visit to her hometown in Fukushima Prefecture. Atsuko has used a wheelchair ever since she was a little girl.
Our school encourages people from the community to share their knowledge as “guest teachers.” So my son’s teacher was thrilled by the offer. He explained that the students were studying barrier-free design during sogo gakushu (integrated learning), the newest subject in Japanese schools. It was introduced last year to encourage children to study and think independently. Teachers and students decide by themselves what they want to study rather than having to follow a prescribed curriculum.
“We want to catch the kids before they have too many preconceived notions about people with disabilities, and encourage them to think of how communities can be designed to serve everyone,” the teacher explained. Each child had chosen a research topic. My son was investigating wheelchair design. His best friend was studying tenji burokku, the raised patterns in sidewalks and station floors that guide visually-impaired people.
Atsuko was great with the kids. She spoke in a lively and engaging way and easily held the attention of all those 8- and 9-year-olds. She was open and encouraged questions.
If you’ve ever raised kids, particularly boys, you won’t be surprised that the children had a lot of questions about bodily functions. Atsuko wheeled herself to a chair at the front of the room. “Imagine this is a Western-style toilet,” she instructed. Then, using just her arms and without the benefit of handrails, she deftly transferred herself from the wheelchair onto the chair to a chorus of oohs and ahhs from the kids.
“Did you notice that I need space to wheel myself close to the ‘toilet?’ That’s why I can’t use a regular stall in a public restroom.”
Atsuko told them about growing up when no place in Japan was accessible. “The biggest problem was that there weren’t toilets I could use. When I went out I wouldn’t drink anything starting the night before so I wouldn’t need a bathroom. It was hard not being able to drink even when I was thirsty. It’s much better in Japan now, but I still have to phone ahead when I’m going someplace to make sure there is an accessible toilet.”
The two hours passed before we knew it, and the children still had questions. Atsuko promised to answer if they wrote to her. I was the conduit for the thank-you letters so I had the opportunity to read the children’s impressions.
“I was nervous all morning when I heard someone in a wheelchair was coming,” one boy wrote. “But when I met you, it was really interesting and I wanted to talk to you even longer.”
“I cried when I thought about you not being able to drink when you were thirsty!” one girl wrote. “It’s not fair that you can’t go anywhere you want. I want to work to make places more accessible.”
I was impressed at the children’s honesty and the impact Atsuko had on them. With Atsuko’s permission, I’m reprinting some of the students’ questions with her answers.
How do you ride in an airplane?
I sit in a regular seat. The aisles on the plane are too narrow for my wheelchair so it goes in with the baggage. The airlines provide a small wheelchair that can fit through the aisles. I can’t push it myself so the flight attendants help me to my seat, and to and from the bathroom.
What kind of school did you go to?
I went to a special school near my home from elementary school through high school. All the students had physical disabilities so I had almost no contact with nondisabled children.
Can you have fun in a wheelchair?
If you modify the equipment or rules, a disabled person can do any sport. I have enjoyed tennis, basketball, skiing, horseback riding, river rafting and swimming.
What’s the worst thing about being in a wheelchair?
There were lots of times when I lived in Japan when I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. I couldn’t attend the school I wanted to attend. I couldn’t take trains I wanted to take. I couldn’t go shopping when I wanted to. I hated being told I couldn’t do something because I was in a wheelchair. Then I went to America and was asked what I wanted to do. I realized that if I tried hard I could make it happen, and I was really happy.
What’s the difference between Japan and America?
In America there are laws that protect people with disabilities so they can live and work together with people who don’t have disabilities. Buildings must have ramps and elevators and accessible toilets. It’s against the law to discriminate against people with disabilities. If some place isn’t accessible, we can use those laws to ask for changes. That’s a big difference.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.