When we moved to Japan and enrolled our sons in local schools, both they and I had a lot to learn. Every day was a challenge, and I was so focused on the basics that I missed a lot of things that should have been obvious. Like the fact that there was a disabled child in my son’s kindergarten.

It was a month before I figured that out, on the day of a parent-child picnic. The teachers took the kids off to play, leaving us moms with instructions to get friendly. In Japan, this means an awkward round of jiko shokai (self-introductions). I tried to follow what each mom was saying, or at least pick up a few names, but mostly I was worrying how I’d manage to introduce myself in Japanese. Then, just when the woman next to me was supposed to take her turn, she leaped up and ran away! I watched her go, amazed, wondering if I could make a similar escape. That’s when another mom leaned over to explain: “She’s chasing after her son. That’s him over there, heading straight for the pond. He has jiheisho [autism], you know.”

I never did get a chance to talk to Yusuke’s mom, who always seemed to have her hands full. Before I knew it, the year was over and my son moved on to elementary school. But I regretted not taking the opportunity to learn from Yusuke about autism, so the other day I called his mother and asked if she’d talk to me.

Yusuke was diagnosed when he was 3 years old and hadn’t started to talk. His family lived in Iwate Prefecture then, but feeling the area had too few resources for children with disabilities, they moved to Tokyo. Yusuke, who is now a third-grader, still doesn’t talk. But he attends a regular public elementary school.

“When it was time for Yusuke to enter school, we went through an evaluation process at the board of education,” his mother explained to me over tea. “They recommended that Yusuke enroll in a yogo gakko (school for disabled children). It offered good resources, but was far away. And because children with autism tend to mimic, we felt Yusuke should have nondisabled students around him as role models. So my husband and I pushed hard for Yusuke to be allowed to attend our neighborhood school, which has a special class for disabled children.”

Three years ago, the law was changed to make it clear that municipalities are not obligated to send disabled children to special schools, and that such children may attend local schools so long as they are provided with an appropriate education.

“These days, many parents want their children to remain in the community at neighborhood schools,” explained Yutaka Tokunaga, chief researcher at the National Institute of Special Education. “And we know that interaction with disabled children teaches other students to respect people with disabilities, and helps to eliminate prejudice and discrimination. So we are working hard to find innovative ways to deliver special education services at local schools as well as the special schools for the disabled, and to increase the number of teachers and principals with training in special education.”

Until a few generations ago, many Japanese regarded disabilities as sources of shame, a kind of divine retribution for some wrongdoing within the family. Disabled children were often hidden at home. Although parents are legally obliged to send their children to school, exemptions for disabled children were common until 1979, when the government extended compulsory education to all children regardless of disabilities. A network of special schools for the disabled — there are currently 993 — was set up around that time.

There are about 172,000 children receiving special education in Japan, 1.5 percent of all elementary- and middle-school students. Two-thirds attend regular schools, enrolled either in special classes for the disabled or in regular classes, from which they are taken out for a certain number of hours per week of individualized instruction (tsukyu shido).

Yusuke is in a special class for disabled students, who range from first- to sixth-graders. All have cognitive disabilities and receive instruction according to their needs. The teacher-student ratio is 1:3, and there are sometimes as many as five teachers in the classroom, although not all are trained in special education.

“I’m glad Yusuke’s not in the totally segregated environment of a special school,” his mother said. “But sometimes I wonder if he might have got a better education there. And in the regular school, the disabled kids are not as integrated as I had hoped. The only time they really interact with other students is at major events like the undokai (sports day).” She sighed. “Meaningful integration is difficult, especially for a child like Yusuke who doesn’t talk.”

That statement made me wonder about foreign families. “It’s almost impossible in Japan to mainstream a disabled child who doesn’t speak Japanese,” an American father confirmed. “The international schools don’t have special education programs and, with few exceptions, will not accept a child with disabilities that affect learning.” While there are a small number of private schools for English-speaking disabled children, it’s difficult for them to provide opportunities for interaction with nondisabled children. One school, Tokyo International Learning Community in Mitaka, western Tokyo, has arranged for its students to attend music and physical education classes at the nearby American School in Japan.

I thanked Yusuke’s mom for educating me, and apologized that it took me so long to take an interest. “That’s OK,” she said graciously. “I like it when people ask questions, because it gives me an opportunity to explain. The worst is when people pretend not to notice.”

All children deserve an education that will help them to reach their full potential and allow them to become independent, contributing members of society. We should applaud the real strides made in providing better educational opportunities for disabled children, and including them in schools and society. But as Yusuke’s mother pointed out, just putting disabled kids in the same building with nondisabled kids doesn’t constitute true inclusion.

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