DAISEN, AKITA PREF. - Every summer, students from local high schools in Akita Prefecture gather to learn how to repair secondhand wheelchairs to be sent overseas.
On Aug. 7 in the city of Daisen in the southern part of the prefecture, Tomoki Inoue, a third-year student from a public high school in Omagari, cleaned and changed the tires on wheelchairs that will be sent to Sri Lanka this fall.
Inoue, who took part in the project for the first time, said he has been aware of the hurdles faced by people with disabilities since childhood.
“My mom works as a nursing care worker and my dad uses a wheelchair, which was one of the reasons I wanted to be of help,” he said, adding he wanted to learn how to assemble the equipment. “I (hope) these wheelchairs will help people with limited mobility enjoy the freedom of moving around.”
Taira Suzuki, another student at the school, said while he was not aware of the challenges faced by people with disabilities in other countries, “it’s worth it if we can help bring joy to them and their families.”
Students from Akita have repaired 329 wheelchairs, which were later delivered to nursing and medical facilities in Thailand, Sri Lanka and several other countries in the past decade.
The Soratobu Kurumaisu (flying wheelchair) project was launched as a local project in Tochigi Prefecture in the 1990s, and currently students from roughly 84 schools in 27 prefectures nationwide are engaged in the repair of equipment destined mainly for Asian countries.
The project started after Sujinda Izumida, a Thai-native and university professor in Tochigi Prefecture, came up with the idea of providing aid for those in need in her home country through sending secondhand wheelchairs.
Shocked with conditions in Thailand, where wheelchairs were not suited to meet local mobility requirements and too expensive, Izumida asked for help from a local industrial high school to repair and send Japan-made wheelchairs, which are much lighter and easier to operate.
In December 2004, when a massive tsunami hit the western shore of Sri Lanka, the group managed to collect, repair and deliver 139 wheelchairs to people with disabilities in areas affected by the disaster. More than 1,000 have been delivered to Sri Lanka since the disaster.
In April, following a massive quake in Nepal, the group offered to deliver wheelchairs for the injured and people with disabilities there.
Such efforts have been welcomed by the receiving countries, with some holding a ceremony with the attendance of a head of state to accept the wheelchairs. Last year, when the group sent two wheelchairs to Senegal, the ambassador to Japan volunteered to deliver them.
According to the Japan Social Welfare Benefit Association, which supports the project, nearly 50,000 wheelchairs are replaced with new ones or disposed of yearly in Japan. The association collects them from nursing and medical facilities nationwide and sends them to schools across the country to undergo repairs.
Repairs are conducted under the guidance of a volunteer group of students from Kanagawa Institute of Technology in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Niigata University of Health and Welfare in the city of Niigata.
“For many people (a wheelchair) is a luxury, as even in Japan, wheelchairs for children are custom-made to meet (the) special needs of each one and thus are very costly,” said 22-year-old Naoto Umehara, a student at the Kanagawa institute who has been part of the initiative for about six years.
“What’s most important about this initiative is high school students’ contribution to social welfare, as they play the key role,” said the welfare association’s Executive Director Teruaki Morii.
As volunteering activities have been introduced as part of the schools’ curriculum, “it’s very easy for students to participate in the initiative,” Morii said. Since the students are seldom given the opportunity to visit the countries where the equipment is delivered, Morii said it would be good if they had the chance to see for themselves the joy of people who received the wheelchairs and realize how meaningful their help is.