Unlike other students who enjoyed full mobility and could easily find jobs as convenience store clerks or waiters, the choices available to Toshiya Kakiuchi, 26, were limited as he sought to finance his studies at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

While juggling his studies with his part-time fashion designer job, however, Kakiuchi, who has spent most of his life in a wheelchair, entered a small Web design firm where he became the leader in sales, visiting more than a dozen clients a day.

“My boss at the time encouraged me to view my disability, and the fact that people remembered me as a person in a wheelchair, as an advantage,” he recalled in a recent interview. That’s when he realized that “barriers can be changed into values.”

That phrase is now the fundamental concept behind Mirairo, his consultancy in Osaka. Kakiuchi currently resides in Mirairo’s Tokyo office.

The company’s name is a mix of the Japanese words mirai, meaning future, and iro or ro, which can mean color, or path, respectively. Together, they be roughly translated as meaning “opening doors to future pathways.”

The company offers consultation, training and other services that raise awareness and improve access for people with special needs. It aims to enable individuals to utilize their abilities regardless of age, gender, nationality or physical condition.

Kakiuchi believes he and others with disabilities develop enhanced skills as they adjust.

“For example, sight-impaired people are really fast and accurate at typing as they remember the keyboard really well,” he said, referring to one of his employees. Mirairo has a staff of 21 including part-time workers, and some have disabilities.

Kakiuchi, who grew up in mountainous Gifu Prefecture, decided to use his knowledge and experience to raise public awareness of the needs of people like himself and improve their quality of life.

“I’ve always dreamed about having the ability to walk,” Kakiuchi said, explaining that merely stepping out of his house has been an inconvenience for most of his life.

As an infant, Kakiuchi was diagnosed with dysosteogenesis, a bone condition he compares to having a body built of reinforced concrete without the stabilizing steel rods.

Since he was 4 or 5, the genetically inherited disease has caused about 20 bone fractures and over a dozen surgeries, leaving him wheelchair-bound.

“When I was thinking of establishing Mirairo, I was also thinking about the future of my children in case I decide to start a family, hoping to make their lives more convenient,” he said, recalling how he had to be carried from classroom to classroom by teachers or classmates.

In 2009, Kakiuchi and some classmates launched a group called Added Value Networking. Its business plan gained recognition from publishers and other firms that backed student initiatives, allowing Kakiuchi to set up Mirairo Inc. in 2010.

Mirairo’s clients include hotels, karaoke bars and theme parks that are interested in meeting the needs of people with disabilities and in using universal design solutions when erecting new facilities.

Kakiuchi says “not creating barriers when designing a new facility costs less than removing such barriers later.”

“Many companies seek advice regarding safety measures to ensure a suitable level of wheelchair access or to reduce accident risk,” he said. These companies include Universal Studios Japan and sports chain Wellness Supply.

The company has also conducted drills with the Reconstruction Agency to explore disaster scenarios that require the careful evacuation of disabled people.

“Japan’s barrier-free infrastructure has become one of the most advanced in the world, with more and more solutions being adopted as the government is rushing to increase accessibility now that Japan has been selected to host the Olympic Games in 2020,” he said.

Kakiuchi recalled how his life changed when an elevator was installed at his hometown’s main train station in Nakatsugawa.

By allowing him to get to the train platform more easily, the elevator encouraged him to use trains more often so he could go to see baseball games and movies with his friends.

In Tokyo, the number of stations equipped with elevators has risen to roughly 80 percent.

In Osaka, all metro stations on the municipal network have installed elevators, Kakiuchi said.

But merely installing elevators is insufficient without good design, because people in wheelchairs may still be unable to access stores, restaurants and other facilities in today’s expanding train and subway stations.

While praising the government’s move to make urban environments and transportation systems more accessible to people with disabilities, Kakiuchi laments that the amount of information available is still limited.

So he plans to create an app for smartphones and tablet computers later this year that will enable people to confirm whether they can enter restaurants without relying on help from others.

Even now, less than 5 percent of the nation’s restaurants and eateries have adopted barrier-free designs, he said.

What counts most, however, is changing people’s attitudes toward those with special needs, Kakiuchi said. Most people are either negligent or overprotective of those with handicaps.

“During my four years of study at university, I never used a bus to travel to campus, even though they were supposed to be accessible by wheelchair,” he said, explaining that “the driver apparently considered it bothersome to stop even though he saw me waiting at the bus stop.”

Such experiences led him to develop training sessions about the use of barrier-free services for East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) and other companies. Since launching the program in 2010, about 15,000 people employed in the services and medical industries have participated in such sessions, he said.

Mirairo also offers to conduct “universal manners seminars” at schools.

At Shinagawa Joshi Gakuin, a combined junior and senior high school for girls in Tokyo, all students are given basic knowledge on needs and proper conduct when offering assistance to people with disabilities.

“I’d appreciate it if someone asked me what kind of help or assistance I need, rather than asking if I can help myself,” he said, repeating the most frequent question asked of disabled people. Such a phrase creates a sense of discomfort, he said.

“In most cases, disabled people would say they are OK even if they are in difficulty or in pain,” he explained.

Kakiuchi believes that his efforts will help promote understanding of disabled people’s needs in a broader sense, and also benefit various minorities in Japan.

“No matter how much infrastructure and accessibility are improved, more important is how many people are able to open up an umbrella over the head of a person maneuvering a wheelchair on a rainy day,” he said.

If public understanding of the needs of others grows, then “Japan would truly be able to boast of its hospitality spirit, the real omotenashi.”

Important events in Kakiuchi’s life

2004 — Enters public high school in Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture.
2006 — Drops out of high school because of interruptions caused by rehabilitation.
2008 — Enters the College of Business Administration at Ritsumeikan University.
2009 —Establishes the Value Added Network with Takero Tamino, gaining recognition from over a dozen companies and organizations.
2010 — Establishes Mirairo Inc.
2011 — Recognized by authorities in the Kinki region for his contribution to the region’s revitalization.
2013 — Awarded Grand Prix at the 3rd Minna no Yume Awards (Everyone’s Dream Awards), sponsored by Nippon Broadcasting System.
2014 — Listed as one of Japan’s 100 Most Influential People by Nikkei Business Publications Inc.
2015 — Wins an award from Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry recognizing companies promoting diversity in the workplace.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews appearing on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .

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