More barrier-free steps urged in disaster zone

For disabled evacuees, immobility a part of life yet to be remedied


When Yusuke Ishimori was about to get on a bus last autumn to head to Sendai from his home in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, he was refused boarding. The reason, he was told, was that his electric wheelchair was too heavy.

“So people with disabilities in disaster-hit regions can’t even go on an outing?” the 26-year-old recalled thinking.

The bus was running as substitute transportation for railway service interrupted by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters.

While reconstruction proceeds rapidly in the devastated Tohoku region, support and consideration for the disabled remains inadequate in many aspects of life.

Shunsuke Abe, who uses a wheelchair and lost his home in the tsunami, cited that lack of support as the first thing he noticed while operating as an outreach worker to help other disabled people in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

More than 300 disabled people are living in temporary housing in Ishinomaki, according to the municipal government.

Yet even temporary housing units specially assigned for the impaired are only equipped with a ramp outside the entrance and are not barrier-free inside, said Abe. The parking lots, made of gravel, also make it difficult to move around.

Making the situation worse, some disabled people have a hard time managing their daily lives as the number of hours they can seek support from helpers is limited.

Meanwhile, data from Fukushima Prefecture give a clear illustration that for many disabled people, there is little choice but to stay where they are despite the harsh conditions, even though tens of thousands of nondisabled people have evacuated in the face of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Of the 116,000 people with disabilities in Fukushima, only 1,600 have evacuated to and remain in other prefectures.

Sadami Watanabe, a counselor at a support center for the disabled in Fukushima who has a speech impediment due to cerebral palsy, evacuated to Niigata Prefecture immediately after the nuclear crisis started but returned about a month later.

“No doubt I am scared of the radiation,” Watanabe, 58, said. “But things like having to look for disabled housing and a new helper are too great a burden physically. I just can’t go live in another prefecture.”

In many cases, even if people with disabilities want to evacuate, they end up not doing so because priority is given to the views of family members taking care of them, according to Kinue Suzuki, the 61-year-old director of a nonprofit organization.

On a brighter note, some are hoping to make the reconstruction effort a good opportunity to build a more barrier-free society.

Among these activists, Abe, the 29-year-old outreach worker, and his group are hoping to win support for this goal from the public and authorities in Ishinomaki by distributing pamphlets explaining the difficulties faced by the disabled and holding seminars.