Atsuko Kuwana relies on a wheelchair to get around, but since moving to Hawaii and taking up scuba diving four years ago, she has experienced movement in a whole new way
“Everyone is pretty much the same under the water — we are all basically ‘disabled,’ as we can’t talk, hear or run,” she says. “Of course, I need extra help to get in and out of the water, but once I dive in, it’s so peaceful down there.”
A breech baby, Kuwana suffered a spinal cord injury when her mother went into labor unexpectedly and had to give birth in an unfamiliar hospital. Her mobility issues, however, have never stopped Kuwana from pursuing and creating opportunities to propel herself forward in life.
At the age of just 4, she was sent to a residential school for children with disabilities where she lived for six years. While this may sound hard for such a small child, Kuwana says, “I actually felt privileged, as in those days many disabled people were stuck in the house. I was lucky that my parents sought opportunities for me to gain social and educational skills.”
The ultimate goal during her stay was to learn to walk, and eventually the young Kuwana achieved this with the aid of braces on her legs. However, she decided that a wheelchair would serve her better.
“Walking with braces was mentally and physically tiring. Even though they called me ‘lazy,’ I could move around easily in a wheelchair, and I realized that walking wasn’t necessary for my happiness,” she says candidly.
Fueled by a love of American TV shows and music, Kuwana became interested in English as a teenager and went on to major in the language at a two-year college in Japan — her first experience of integrated education. She also enjoyed a three-week homestay in the U.S. “I thought that if I mastered this language then maybe my life could be bigger, with more opportunities,” she recalls.
A golden chance presented itself through Japanese company Duskin’s Ainowa Foundation. To commemorate the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, Duskin established a Study Abroad Leaders Program for the Disabled, and Kuwana successfully applied for one of 10 scholarships offered in the inaugural year.
Having experienced a mostly segregated education in Japan, Kuwana was keen to use the opportunity to learn more about mainstream education for the disabled. She was subsequently sent as an intern to the Center for Independent Living Inc., a facility in Berkeley, California, promoting advocacy and supporting those with disabilities to live life to the fullest.
According to Kuwana, her nine months at the center “woke” her up to the possibilities for the disabled community, including participating in sports. “At this point Japan had competitive sports, such as wheelchair tennis and basketball, but I was more interested in sports for recreational purposes,” she notes.
Berkeley was also the catalyst for a major change in another area of Kuwana’s life, as she met her future husband, Michael Winter, three weeks before she was due to leave. Winter was a disability advocate and pioneer in the independent living movement, and was born with brittle bone disorder.
In due course the couple got married and settled back in Berkeley, where Kuwana completed a degree in Asian American Studies at the University of California. They went on to adopt a baby boy from Japan who had clubfoot.
“When we applied to adopt, we told (the agency) we were both disabled and would be ready to welcome a child with a disability,” Kuwana says. “Another reason behind our decision to adopt was that my husband’s condition was hereditary, although of course we would have welcomed and loved a child regardless.”
Kuwana points out that family members are often “the greatest enemies” of those with disabilities, with their well-meaning but sometimes misguided attempts to protect their loved ones. “As a parent myself, of course I understand this. But don’t be afraid to let them try new things,” she urges.
In 1994, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where Winter pursued a career as a policy adviser on advocacy for the disabled and held various positions at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Kuwana, meanwhile, combined caring for their son with teaching Japanese to governmental and military personnel.
During this period, she also served for two years as a special advisor for her home prefecture of Fukushima, under then-Gov. Eisaku Sato.
“(Sato) met us while we were still living in Berkeley,” she explains. “His goal was to make Fukushima into a place that was equal and inclusive for all, and since I knew both U.S. and Japanese culture, he wanted my input.”
Though she was initially asked to move to Fukushima for the duration of her contract, Kuwana says she was concerned that it would have been hard with a young son. After negotiating, she was able to go back and forth between the U.S. and Japan for a few months at a time, lecturing to various organizations, schools and community groups about her experiences with disability advocacy, while also learning more about the situation in Fukushima.
Kuwana’s world was then turned upside down when her husband passed away in 2013. “I was shocked and traumatized,” she says “But then I began to think about what I wanted going forward.”
While she had accepted that life in Washington, D.C. was necessary for her husband’s career, Kuwana admits that she never really liked the city. With her son now a young adult, she gave serious thought to where to spend the next stage.
Berkeley, which she describes as her “second hometown,” was a strong candidate. She enjoyed the climate and still had many friends there. She also toyed with the idea of going to back to Japan in order to be nearer to her family. Ultimately she came to the realization that Hawaii would be an ideal location, with its combination of being a well-established Japanese cultural hub with the things she values about the American lifestyle.
Another draw was the opportunity to pursue a long-held interest in scuba diving. Having obtained her license while still living in Washington, D.C., she felt the timing was right to take her skills to the next level. In addition to scuba diving, she also regularly participates in surfing through the assistance of AccesSurf, a nonprofit organization that helps people with physical or cognitive disabilities to experience marine sports in a barrier-free environment.
Noting that her endeavors to date have simply been in order to achieve the things she wanted, Kuwana’s advice to others with disabilities is essentially the same as her own personal mantra: “Don’t put limits on yourself! You have to do research and ask for help, but if you want to do something, then just do it.”
Name: Atsuko Kuwana
Profession: Japanese language instructor and translator (semiretired)
Hometown: Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture
Key moments in life and career:
1981 — Wins a Duskin Ainowa Foundation’s Study Abroad Leaders Program for the Disabled scholarship and interns at the Center for Independent Living Inc. in Berkeley, California.
1984 — Marries Michael Winter
1991 — Adopts a son from Japan
1994 — Settles in Washington, D.C. with her family
2000 — Works with the Fukushima prefectural government as coordinator for building an equal society
2015 — Moves to Hawaii and takes up marine sports such as scuba diving and surfing
What I miss most about Japan: “Reasonably priced quality fruit and vegetables with genuine, natural flavors; beautiful views of Fukushima.”
What I like best about the U.S.: “The high level of awareness of civil rights and diverse society.”