Life can be rough for those who look a little “different” from others in society. You would expect no one to know this better than Hirotada Ototake, who was born without arms or legs due to a genetic disorder called tetra-amelia syndrome. Surprisingly, however, the 38-year-old says he was fortunate to have never felt like he was severely disabled.
“Everyone is different, regardless of their disability,” Ototake tells The Japan Times. “You can choose to dwell on your “difference” in a negative way or, alternatively, accept it and turn it into something positive. I have been able to turn my disability into something super-positive.”
Ototake has an impressive resume behind him already, working in such positions as an author, sports journalist, actor, elementary school teacher and head of a nonprofit organization that works to clean the streets of Shinjuku Ward.
He is now manager of Universal Communication Labo, a think tank that was established last autumn to create a sustainable society for all. The organization gives other entities advice on their products or services, and conducts on-site inspections of domestic and international venues.
Surprisingly, this is the first time Ototake has worked directly with the barrier-free movement.
“By working in a sector that focuses on welfare or barrier-free issues, I was worried that people might start thinking that someone like me can only participate in such activities,” Ototake says. “In the past, I didn’t wish to be constrained by my disabilities and so tried to take part in unexpected activities so that I could achieve a true sense of freedom. I have reached a point where I can tell people I have been able to achieve many different things in my life and I’m now ready to tackle barrier-free issues.”
Ototake first made headlines with his 1998 memoir “Gotai Fumanzoku” (“No One’s Perfect”), which became the third-best-selling book in postwar Japan in less than a year of publication.
The book opens with an account of meeting his mother for the first time. The hospital had kept Ototake separated from his mother for a month, and doctors were so sure she would faint upon seeing her limbless child that they prepared a bed in the room in which the two would meet. To everyone’s surprise, his mother didn’t faint and she greeted her newborn son with words of affection: “He’s adorable.”
Ototake’s parents played a major role in his positive outlook on life by helping him build self-esteem — a word he swears by even today. Even as a young boy, Ototake was never discouraged by his disability.
Instead, he says, he enjoyed standing out from the crowd and looking at people’s reactions. His classmates were initially intrigued by his electric wheelchair but once they had examined it, they treated him just the same as everyone else.
Looking back, Ototake believes he has been able to enjoy life so much because his parents, teachers and friends always supported him and built up his self-esteem.
It was this encouragement that inspired him to become a teacher of young students. He wanted to pass this on to subsequent generations.
“People always pray that their children will be born without any physical defects,” Ototake says. “It’s hard to imagine any worse disability than the one I carried into this world but I’m living proof that self-esteem is key to enjoying life. Such confidence lays a foundation that children can use to overcome challenges in the future.”
Technological advances in prenatal tests allow doctors to detect a number of defects that babies may have while still in the womb. Opponents of such screenings during pregnancy argue that such tests are increasing the number of abortions that are being carried out every year.
Ultimately, Ototake says, such decisions should be left up to parents. That said, he wants parents to know that even people with severe disabilities can still make it in this day and age.
“At the end of the day, only the parents should make such decisions because they’re the ones who will have to raise the child. If the parents say they aren’t able to raise the child, no one else can really say anything to change that,” Ototake says. “I, however, have made it my life mission to to create a society in which parents are all thrilled to have brought their children into this world.”