On April 1, a new law aimed at advancing the rights of people with disabilities took effect explicitly banning discrimination against them and requiring government bodies and private-sector businesses to pay greater attention to their needs.

While the Law to Eliminate Discrimination against People with Disabilities will make life easier to some extent for the nation’s 7.8 million people with impairments, experts point to its shortcomings and limitations.

Why did Japan create the law?

The law is part of the government’s moves to align domestic laws with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed in 2007 and ratified in 2014 and to which Japan is a signatory. The law cleared the Diet in June 2013, but took effect only in April to provide time for the public and private sectors to prepare.

What does the law ban and seek?

The law comprises two key parts. For the first time it bans “unjust discrimination” against people with disabilities. It also asks government agencies and private businesses to take “reasonable accommodation” to remove social barriers for such individuals.

What is considered discriminatory under the law?

The government has issued rough guidelines on examples of acts deemed discriminatory, under which organizations cannot refuse to serve people because of their disabilities, delay responses to their requests or bar their attendance to symposiums or other events. Signs that say “No people with disabilities” are now banned.

Examples of “reasonable accommodation” include “writing documents from dictation upon request,” “using illustrations, dictations, cards and PC tablets to communicate,” and “making seating arrangements in a way that take their disabilities into consideration.”

But the examples do not cover every situation and leave room for interpretation and negotiation. Also, the central and local governments are legally mandated to take measures, but private-sector entities are only asked to “strive” to take action. Private-sector organizations can be slapped with a fine of up to ¥200,000 if they don’t report to authorities on their practices when asked or make false claims in their reports.

Do these pointers provide enough information for people to take proper action?

Rights advocates say no. “The law does not clearly define what exactly constitutes discrimination,” said Kiyoshi Harada, an official at the secretariat of Japan Disability Forum. JDF is a nongovernmental network consisting of 13 national-level organizations working on behalf of people with impairments.

“The law’s significance lies in the fact that municipal governments and businesses are asked to take action. This has given people legal grounds to lodge complaints when they have issues,” Harada said.

He said “reasonable accommodation” is specific to individual needs and hard to generalize. “It’s different from ‘barrier-free’ regulations, where rules are much more clear-cut, such as the size of certain building equipment or angles of ramps.”

For example, blind workers might ask their employers to make documents available in Braille. Employers are required to respond to such requests to the best of their ability, but they might find it financially difficult to put all documents in Braille. In such cases, explaining their difficulty to those who made the requests and offering alternatives, such as providing documents in advance or electronic versions, can be regarded as fulfilling their obligation, Harada said, noting that, this way, blind employees have time to ask other people to read the documents for them or use computer software that reads out typed text.

Now that the law is in place, data on what kind of requests are made and how they are dealt with can be collected. Such a database will eventually set standards for unacceptable behavior and for recommended practices, he said.

What if parties disagree on the law’s requirements?

The law merely says the central and local governments should respond adequately to requests for consultation from people with disabilities, their families and other supporters to resolve disputes.

Specifically, welfare officials at both government levels are encouraged to create regional councils to help resolve conflicts, though it is not mandatory. Council members can include representatives of rights groups, family members, government officials and academics. According to a recent survey by the Cabinet Office, only 112, or 6 percent, of 1,741 municipalities in Japan had set up such councils before the law took effect. Exactly what these councils are supposed to do is not spelled out in the law, however.

The law must be reviewed in three years. How can it be improved?

Harada said the regional dispute-settlement mechanism should be beefed up, and ideally be separated from government oversight. Japan has no independent watchdog that handles issues related to human rights, not only for people with disabilities but also for other vulnerable members of society, including women.

“Ideally, we’d like to see something like the Board of Audit of Japan, which supervises government spending,” he said. “For example, the Justice Ministry has a bureau that deals with human rights issues, but because it is a ministry bureau questions (of neutrality) arise when it comes to human rights at prisons, which the ministry also supervises. We need a mechanism similar to the audit board.”

The law should also make it mandatory for companies to take “reasonable accommodation” on the issue, he added.

“I want people to know the law, as it is the first one of any kind banning discrimination,” Harada said. “The law could be the first step to creating a society where everyone — regardless of whether they have a disability — will be free of discrimination.”

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