Peggy Prosser was sitting in front of a travel agent in Japan when she was abruptly informed that she would not be able to fly back to the United States to visit her family because she is deaf.
When Prosser sat down with him, she had written out her itinerary and given it to him.
Initially he had assumed it was because she couldn’t speak Japanese, but when it became clear that she was deaf, he wrote on a piece of paper that flying was not an option as she would be unable to follow safety instructions.
To Prosser this was nonsense — after all, she had come to Japan by air — and definitely not part of any guidelines for dealing with deaf people. It spoke more to the ignorance of the travel agent than anything else. She finally got her tickets after the agent talked to a supervisor, but the incident left a bad aftertaste.
That was in 1993. But even now, Prosser believes discrimination against the deaf still exists as society is built for people who can speak and hear.
“I do see a lot of things changing for the better and some things for the worse,” said 52-year-old Prosser, who has lived in Japan for over 25 years. “Too often, deaf people are marginalized, forgotten or maybe ignored,” she said.
Prosser went deaf at the age of 5 for an unknown reason. Since then, American Sign Language has given her a new tool to communicate and a new way to interact with the world.
She does not remember how she lost her hearing but recalls the time when she no longer needed to wait for “a big yellow school bus” to go to school just like other kids in the neighborhood.
Living in Japan as a foreigner who is deaf has revealed many challenges. Prosser, who works as a travel agent for the deaf, hopes 2020 will be a game-changer in a society where a lack of understanding of the deaf population leads to audism — or the notion that one is superior based on an ability to hear.
“Access to public programs and services will give deaf people the experience they need to become empowered and give back to society,” Prosser said.
Many deaf people stress the importance of visualizing information as the hearing community often hesitates to communicate in writing, especially in times of emergency. Verbal announcements to tell commuters why a train has been delayed, for example, may not be helpful for the deaf.
Despite positive moves in recent years toward equal opportunities and to encourage people with disabilities to participate more in society, Japan is still seen as lagging behind the United States and European countries.
The U.S., for instance, celebrated the 25th anniversary in July of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans discrimination based on disabilities in employment and transportation services, among other areas.
In April a new law takes effect in Japan banning discrimination by government organizations and companies against people with disabilities.
Under the new law, public organizations both at the national and local levels will be legally obliged to give “reasonable accommodations,” or assistance to those in need, so social barriers can be removed, whereas companies are encouraged to follow suit.
Globally, some 1 billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, have a disability, and nearly 790 million are of working age, according to the International Labor Organization.
Japan’s disability employment rate stood at 1.82 percent as of June 2014, a record high for Japan but still below the 2 percent target set by the government for private companies, data show.
“Japan is one step behind” in promoting the employment of people with disabilities, said Sadanori Arimura, a professor well-versed in diversity management at Yamaguchi University.
“The government should aim for a higher target.”
People who have knowledge of disability employment point out one “pitfall” in hiring deaf people. They say that employers tend to believe deaf people are only unable to hear but otherwise can work just like anyone else. That misperception has prevented those with disabilities from receiving enough support in the workplace.
Even if they are hired, the chance of promotion to a managerial post is slim, and there is also a hiring gap between men and women, according to experts.
The inclusion of people with disabilities in various aspects of society is still a work in progress.
In a classroom in Tokyo, American instructor Martin Dale-Hench teaches Japanese students how to describe personal characteristics in ASL.
Offered by Japanese ASL Signers Society, a nonprofit organization, the course is designed to help Japanese students — both with or without hearing disabilities — deepen their understanding of different cultures and train volunteers for the Olympics in ASL.
Dale-Hench, 28, said encouraging Japanese students, especially those who can hear, to express their emotions when signing is a difficult part of teaching.
One of his students, Michiko Akimoto, a psychologist in her 30s, developed her interest in ASL after traveling to many countries, including the U.S., New Zealand, China and South Korea.
She believes learning a new sign language will open up more doors, and someday enable her to offer counseling services to foreigners who can’t hear.
“I want to continue studying and serve as a bridge for deaf people as the Tokyo Olympics (are) coming up,” Akimoto, who was born deaf, said through a sign language interpreter.
Foreigners like Prosser see a need for the tourism industry to cater more to the deaf population, as the 2020 games will likely encourage Japan to improve social infrastructure in coming years.
“I want the tourism sector to invest in tour programs for deaf people in the same way they add ramps for wheelchair users and audio guides for blind people,” Prosser said.