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Disability awareness campaigner calls on Japan to accept inclusive classrooms

Kyodo

A 36-year-old man with physical disabilities has been working to help schools understand that children with special needs should be allowed to attend regular classes if they wish to do so.

Takashi Ono, who has cerebral palsy, can hardly move his body or speak. Yet he is capable of communicating his thoughts by writing messages with his index finger on the palm of a caretaker’s hand.

In late May, Ono met with parents of children going to Ida Elementary School in Kawasaki as part of his recent efforts to raise awareness.

“Children with speech disorders, like mine, can attend regular classes if they learn to communicate,” Ono’s mother Kimiko said on his behalf.

Born and raised in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward, Ono was enrolled at neighborhood elementary and junior high schools along with other children from the community.

“I sat in the front row, the closest seat to the teacher, and my classmates came and talked to me whenever class ended,” Ono said. “What I needed was just a bit of thoughtfulness, like what they showed to me. I treasure the experience with those neighborhood peers and that is why I can still be connected with them.”

But his life changed dramatically after he entered a high school for the disabled, where he was perceived as having serious intellectual disabilities.

“The classes there were taught as though they were for kindergarteners, and I had basically no chance to learn,” Ono said.

In December 2006, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which specifies they should not be excluded from the general educational system. The convention constitutes a basis of the concept of inclusive education.

Japan ratified the convention in line with the Constitution’s Article 26, which states that all people should have the right to an equal education.

Until several years ago, children diagnosed with serious disabilities during a preschool health checkup and evaluation process were sent to special schools.

“Some people with disabilities may choose to attend special classes, but what’s important is that each of us has the freedom to choose,” Ono said.

Jumpei Ota, 26, who also has cerebral palsy, has been promoting inclusive education by drawing lessons from the systems used in other countries.

Ota, who attended special schools, said he had to give up on his dream of going to university because he could not receive sufficient education.

Six years ago, he learned in a seminar for people with disabilities that there are no special schools in Italy. He asked his mother to help him research the country’s educational system.

Ota, who communicates by pointing to characters on a hiragana chart, found that Italy provides inclusive education in every phase from nursery school to university and that educational programs are prepared to fit an individual’s ability.

“I wondered why Japan cannot realize what has already been done in Italy,” Ota said. “Every child has the right to have an education — give us a decent one.”

He now often appears at gatherings of people with disabilities and their supporters to raise awareness of the issue and hopes to visit Italy in the near future.