Yasuhiro Oyama, 76, is the president of Nihon Rikagaku Industry, known not only for being the first chalk-maker to launch dustless chalk in Japan, but for the employees who make its products: 54 out of the company’s 74 employees are mentally challenged, with 60 percent of them having an IQ lower than 50. At Nihon Rikagaku, handicaps are turned into abilities — an attitude that has given those who wouldn’t typically have the opportunity to work the chance to live happier lives. These employees have helped the company achieve a 30-percent market share and make award-winning products such as its Kittopas brand — recipient of the 2006 Kawasaki Monozukuri Prize — a chalk that can be used on glass and other unusual surfaces. Crediting his employees for all his success, in 1981 Oyama founded the Japan Association of Employers of Persons with Severe Disabilities, which today has 341 member companies. For his dedication to helping challenged people make a living for themselves, just last month Oyama received the Eichi Shibusawa Prize, named after the famed industrialist whose motto was that public profit should always have priority over private interests.

Being loved is not enough for happiness. Many of our employees take a 90-minute train ride and then walk 15 minutes to our factory. Why? Because they are happy here! But what gives them that feeling? I wondered about that until a monk told me that happiness had four components and, with the exception of being loved, the other three can only be obtained through work: being complimented, having the chance to help others and having the feeling that one is needed and appreciated. Thanks to this monk, I understood that I should employ as many challenged people as I could.

Don’t you ever give up! If you are turned away one, twice, you should still go back the third time. In 1959, I had a visit from a teacher from a special school for mentally challenged kids. He asked me to hire a few graduates, and when I didn’t agree, he left — but was soon back again. By the third time he stopped by, he was only asking me to take them in for a few weeks so they could get a taste of work. The two students worked so hard that by the end of their three weeks, all my employees were asking me to give them full-time positions. The whole team was united more than ever and everyone promised to help those two.

Every handicap can be worked around with a little creativity. We never give up on a person. We find ways they can perform the necessary task according to their abilities by customizing every workstation and step. One guy is in charge of mixing the colors and making giant batches of chalk, but he has no concept of time. His work’s success depends on the precise timing of adding ingredients, though, so at first we made him hourglasses that he could turn upside down — once the sand has trickled down, he moves to the next step. Now he is using colored timers that make a sound. He enjoys the bells ringing and does a fantastic job.

Making chalk might be easy for one person and difficult for others. Same with life: Some people enjoy each minute, while others go through life dreading each step. So it is best to mix our abilities, so that we can all have happier lives.

Don’t expect anyone to do a task as it was explained to him or her. People must translate it for themselves, and only then can they do it well.

Manuals are tools for discrimination. I traveled all over Europe and the United States searching for examples of handicapped people working but found very few. And when I did, they had physical, not mental, challenges. In Europe and the United States, companies are too dependent on manuals, so if the employee can’t read and understand all that is written, they can’t get hired. But Japanese do not use manuals much. Our culture is based on people teaching others, so we work around challenges. Our kindness to people who might have difficulties coping is the pride of Japan. Our city streets are lined with special bumpy lines for blind people to walk safely on, stations have elevators, and we can see people with challenges working all over town, from cafes to city offices to factories. Japan is the best country for those with challenges.

People say that challenged people get bored easily. That’s not true. Maybe they’ll stop working because they feel very anxious about doing a good job, but once they know a step, they perfect it and never get bored with it. They don’t try to take shortcuts, so their work quality is consistently great.

Employing people with unique abilities makes solid business sense. I used to have a business making plastic components for audio tapes. The interesting thing was that the exact same work was performed by another factory where none of the workers had challenges. Each employee at that company could assemble 1,000 tapes a day, while our employees could barely manage 100. But once we created five-people teams, in which each person did just one step, they produced 5,000 tapes a day!

We are all challenged in some form. I tell you, it is hard to tell who is handicapped. It depends on the situation, and in certain aspects we all have some disabilities. The key is to work around them.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Out & About.” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/

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