National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Accommodating disabilities, but only within reason

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Due to his recent sex scandal, best-selling author Hirotada Ototake has decided not to run for the Upper House under the banner of the Liberal Democratic Party this year, but he hasn’t officially said he won’t run at all. Earlier this month, while the scandal was still hot, he went ahead with a birthday party that had been scheduled before it broke. The media reported that he was originally going to announce his candidacy at the party, and though he didn’t, he also didn’t clearly say he wouldn’t run.

Ototake doesn’t necessarily need the LDP to win. He’s famous, and if he does decide to run — either independently or for another party — there’s a chance he can still win. The reason he aligned himself with the LDP was that he thought he would be able to accomplish more with the backing of the ruling party.

His main task is to make better lives for people with disabilities like himself. For the LDP it was perfect, since Ototake’s membership automatically would have given them credibility as a party that supported citizens with disabilities in a society where such support is often considered insufficient, which may explain the media’s cautious approach to the Law on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities, which went into effect April 1.

The regulation, enacted three years ago, seems simple enough. As the Yomiuri Shimbun explains, it “bans administrative bodies and private businesses from unduly discriminating against people with disabilities.” The idea is to make a society where those with disabilities can move and communicate with the same freedom a person without disabilities enjoys. But while the law mandates that private and public sectors alike must “make an effort” to remove all barriers that prevent people with disabilities from realizing the law’s aims, it qualifies the mandate with the phrase “reasonable accommodation.” In other words, there may be circumstances that make it difficult for a party to fully accommodate certain disabilities, but the law is too vague to specify those limitations. Facilities and practices should be made “barrier-free,” but if a business claims it can’t afford to make the appropriate changes, is that an “unreasonable” consideration?

In 2013, Ototake went to an upscale Ginza restaurant and was not admitted because the establishment said it could not accommodate his wheelchair. He took to Twitter with his outrage, naming the restaurant in the process. The restaurant’s response may have been cold, but it was on the second floor and the building’s elevator didn’t stop at that floor. Ototake suggested an employee carry him up the stairs, but that might not be an option for some customers. Under the new law, would the restaurant have to renovate the elevator even if it didn’t own the building?

It isn’t clear how the law would address such matters — an important consideration since there are as many ways of discriminating against persons with disabilities as there are disabilities. As Sarasa Ono, a Meiji University researcher and rights advocate, recently pointed out in interviews, the U.S. incorporated its Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities under any circumstances, into the broader doctrine of constitutionally guaranteed equality, and that equality in this sense means equal opportunity. Ono says that guarantees of equality in Japan refer to something different: In elementary school, for example, all students should have the same books and uniforms and pencils and eat the same lunch, the idea being that no one is treated specially. Equal opportunity here means creating an environment where everyone starts from the same point and has the same chance for improvement.

On the day the law went into effect, the Tokyo Shimbun discussed what sort of changes it should bring about. Pointing out that the central government arrived “late at this issue,” the paper struggles with the meaning of “reasonable accommodation.” The reporter accompanies a 47-year-old woman in a wheelchair on her morning Tokyo commute. When she arrives at Shinjuku Station, Japan Railway staff tell her to wait 30 minutes for an employee who can help her board the train. Once on the platform she has to let several trains pass because the employee has contacted Ikebukuro Station, her destination, and found there is no one available to help her get off right away. It takes her an hour and 20 minutes to arrive at her job, whereas a person without disabilities would normally make the trip in 30 minutes.

JR might say its accommodation was reasonable, but most people would argue it certainly isn’t effective. Fifteen government ministries and agencies are making guidelines for the private sector, and sent notifications to businesses in January asking for feedback, but few have responded, according to the Tokyo Shimbun. There was also resistance to the ADA in the U.S., but over the years people with disabilities successfully sued employers or businesses who they felt did not satisfy its mandates, and as a result a more accommodating environment has been fostered.

The Japanese law simply assumes good faith on the part of the public, including individuals, but it is up to local governments to spread the word. Asahi Shimbun reported last week on so-called help marks, the badges that individuals place on their persons or bags to indicate a disability that may not be apparent. Since these symbols are not unified from one city to another, they aren’t effective in creating a level of social awareness that makes assistance second nature.

But as the JR example illustrates, assistance isn’t the ultimate aim. It’s preferable to have an environment that minimizes the need for assistance, because that is what freedom is about. In the U.S., such an environment developed because people with disabilities used the ADA to assert their rights.

Scandal or no scandal, the Japanese movement needs someone like Ototake, because he’s shown he will fight for his rights. Presumably, he’d fight for others’, too.