A new design exhibition in Tokyo is aiming to give the public perception of disability a makeover by placing style at the top of the agenda.
The exhibition in Shibuya Ward, which runs until Monday and is part of a wider event titled Super Welfare Expo, showcases a range of wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs and other disability aids, with the emphasis as much on fun as functionality.
“When you think about glasses, nowadays they’re fashion items,” Shinji Sudo, of event organizer People Design Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping minority people, told The Japan Times.
“In the past, glasses used to be prescribed to you by doctors. Now, people have no stigma about having bad eyesight. I’d like that to be the case for people who use wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs too.”
Among the products on display at the Shibuya Hikarie venue is an electric wheelchair with a giant back-mounted speaker in the shape of a sail, and wheels that can be pounded like drums.
Another, called Wheelchair DJ, has wheels that play music when spun, and can be “scratched” back and forth like a record.
Elsewhere is a selection of prosthetic legs with a sci-fi flavor, reminiscent of the iconic HR Giger design for the creature in the movie “Alien.”
Sudo, whose son has cerebral palsy, explains that the products are intended to be shown off, not hidden away as a mark of shame.
“I have a disabled son,” he said. “When I use medical welfare services, quite honestly I feel very uncomfortable. One of the reasons for that is the image, which is one of feeling pitied by others. I want to turn that completely around so that the image people have is of it being ‘cool’ and ‘cute.’
“In Japan, when you go to get a wheelchair, your options are limited. You usually get the one that has been recommended to you by the doctor or medical facility. I want to show people that there are lots of different kinds in the world that you can buy.”
Visitors to the exhibition found themselves leaving with a different perspective on the 3.9 million people with a registered physical disability currently living in Japan.
“There is a gloomy and difficult image surrounding disability, so I thought ‘oh, so things have developed as far as this?’ ” said able-bodied 30-year-old Akio Ota. “I think it’s cool.
“From an able-bodied person’s point of view, you have an image of something where design isn’t really taken into consideration and the quality is low. But this is very stylish and cool and something that I would use myself.”
Sudo hopes that the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics can provide further positive inspiration, but cautions that it will take more than just a sporting event to change perceptions.
“I don’t think things will change totally in the space of five years,” he said. “But one characteristic of Japanese people is that once a switch in our feelings flips, we all move on to a new phase pretty quickly.
“Shibuya is a great place for breaking new ground in terms of culture. First I’d like to see handicapped people mixing freely as the norm here.”
According to the 2011 World Report on Disability, compiled by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, Japan has one of the lowest employment rates among working-age people with disabilities. Fewer than 1 in 4 disabled people were working in 2003.
Sudo believes it is up to everyone to help overcome those barriers.
“I’d like to see more disabled people going out and interacting in society,” he said. “In Japan, handicapped people don’t have so many opportunities to mix. They are put in a different class in school. If they find themselves in difficulty, I’d like them to be able to ask people for help.”