NAGANO – Since becoming an assistant language teacher at Nishi High School in the city of Nagano in 1999, David Hathaway, who is blind, has impressed his Japanese colleagues and students with his love of teaching while dispelling some of the ingrained prejudices against disabled people.
As the 26-year-old from Chesterfield, England, greeted students fresh out of junior high in the new academic year at the prefectural high school with “Good morning, everyone,” he received a cheerful “Good morning, Mr. Hathaway” in response.
Hathaway is in Nagano on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, which the government initiated in fiscal 1987 to invite young foreigners to help Japan enrich its foreign-language education and also for the purpose of international exchanges.
During the current fiscal year starting in April, 6,324 foreigners are scheduled to take part in the program.
As an assistant to the school’s Japanese teacher of English, Hathaway teaches pronunciation and conversation.
In the classroom, he reads out English words and the students repeat them. He checks each student’s pronunciation. He taps one on the shoulder and says, “Bring a hand mirror next time. You can find the difference if you look at my lips.”
Hathaway’s instructional material is in braille that he prepares himself with a braille printer. He recites as his fingers touch the dots, and he moves around the classroom following the desks.
English teacher Kazuo Aoki, 49, said, “David is eager to teach the students, thinking of how can he help them improve their English.”
One of the students said, “I got self-confidence after finding out my English was passable.” Said another, “He encourages me even if I make a mistake.”
However, Hathaway is not entirely content.
He said there are too many students in the class and he cannot talk to every one of them while giving a lesson. There are also those who do not show any interest in studying English or who do not want to talk to him.
“Some students are not doing well . . . maybe because they are bashful to speak in front of other students, or they have no motivation to study English,” he said.
Hathaway had a similar experience. He had to take French for two years in junior high school because it was a required subject. He was not interested in it and stopped studying it after two years. He said he does not remember a single word of French.
On the other hand, he was enthusiastic about studying the Celtic language of people on the Isle of Man. His grandfather hailed from the Irish Sea island.
“There are not many people who speak the island’s language,” he said. “Language is not for practical use alone. I was fascinated by the echoes of words my grandfather spoke.”
In fact, as a blind person, he has enjoyed the sound of words and studying language. Whenever he has time, he listens to tapes of foreign languages, of which he speaks eight, including Japanese.
Currently he is studying Korean. Lee Byoung Ju, a 26-year-old Korean student in Japan who is teaching him the language, said, “He is quick on the uptake.”
Hathaway wants to pass on to his students his fascination with echoes found in words and the pleasure of having conversations with people, but he realizes his wishes are a hard sell for those who study English in preparation for university entrance exams, since hearing and conversation are not considered important.
He believes the important point for the students is that “they study English on a voluntary basis. Even if they don’t like English, there are many languages in the world.”
Hathaway has a congenital cornea defect. He had cornea transplants but lost his eyesight after a cricket ball struck him in the face at the age of 9. He had another transplant but did not regain his vision.
When he was 16, he came to Japan for the first time on a youth exchange program organized by the Japanese and British Red Cross societies. He was surprised to find that visually impaired Japanese did not go to ordinary schools but had to study at separate schools for the blind.
“I thought it was natural to go to a normal school,” he said. “I am the only visually impaired person at Nishi High School.”
The school’s principal, Haruki Shima, 50, recalled, “All the people in the school, including me, were worried, because he was the first visually impaired person we had come into contact with.”
They found out their concerns were unwarranted. Hathaway tried to do everything himself and when he needed help, he clearly asked for it.
As they watched him walk dashingly in the school, Asami Wada, a second-year student, said, “He must have remembered the number of steps on the stairs.”
Her classmate, Kyoko Kirisawa, said, “He doesn’t think he is a special person and we keep in touch with him just as we do other teachers.”
Hathaway commutes to and from school by himself, by train and bus.
“Japan is a country where it is easy to live for visually impaired people,” he said, noting that there are raised protrusions on the pavement from his home to the railway station to mark a safe course, and the train conductors announce the name of each station.
Nevertheless, he said, Japan, in seeking to become barrier-free, should focus not only on the infrastructure but also on attitudes toward disabled people.
He said that when he uses a cane to make his way as he walks outdoors, people come to ask him if he is all right, adding that he has never had such an experience in Britain. Still, he awaits the day when Japan will become a nation that recognizes disabled people as equal members of society.
Hathaway will complete his three-year term in July, after which he plans to do research on medieval Iceland, a subject he is specializing in, at a graduate school in Tokyo.
“It is interesting (to experience) Britain and Japan, because they have different languages and cultures,” he said. “There will be something unexpected in them, just like the change in the order of seats in the classroom in the new school year.”
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