National / Social Issues

Shibuya expo showcases innovations toward creating an inclusive society

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

The social welfare system has long been viewed as a form of assistance for the needy.

But the organizer of Super Welfare Expo, featuring innovative welfare products in Tokyo earlier this month, believes producing stylish wheelchairs and hearing aids that people without disabilities would also want to use can help create a diverse and inclusive environment.

“Our goal is to create in the near future an environment where all people can embrace their individual differences,” said Shinji Sudo, chairman of People Design Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping minorities. The institute organized the event.

And Super Welfare Expo, a seven-day event that ended Monday at the Shibuya Hikarie commercial complex and several other venues in Shibuya, showcased cutting-edge technologies and sleek modern designs.

On display were products using state-of-the-art technology for people with mobility, visual or hearing impairments.

An electric wheelchair prototype jointly created by carmaker Suzuki Motor Corp., artists and people with disabilities is an example of added-value products incorporating ideas from actual users. Visitors were also able to explore the city using other types of wheelchairs as an alternative form of transport.

“We want to draw excitement with creativity and innovation in design,” said Sudo.

By attracting attention from people without disabilities, Sudo hopes the expo will help bring down walls against the socially vulnerable, including people with disabilities, sexual minorities, child-rearing parents and foreign residents in Japan.

Also on display was Fujitsu’s Ontenna, a wearable sound sensor for those with hearing disabilities that can be clipped on like a hair pin. The device transmits sound via vibrations and light, enabling deaf people to take part in sound-oriented events, including music and dance performances.

The products and services introduced at the event also focused on the socially vulnerable.

Subway operator Tokyo Metro Co. plans to run a campaign from Dec. 11 to 15 using a service connecting expectant mothers and people willing to offer their seats on trains via the messaging app Line.

Passengers will first need to add an &HAND Line account to their friends. They will then receive notifications that a pregnant woman is looking for an empty seat. Passengers willing to give up their seats can then send a Line message on where they are actually sitting on the train.

The project, jointly run with Line Corp. and major printing firm Dai Nippon Printing Co., aims to enable the needy to notify others of their trouble and encourage others to offer assistance when, for instance, someone needs an explanation for why a train may be delayed.

Shotaro Kimei, 23, who has been using a wheelchair since he was 16, said he was excited by the “next-generation” approach to tackling barriers.

“Most wheelchairs used to be like machines,” Kimei, who has spinal muscular atrophy, said of the lack of stylish wheelchairs.

“But these kinds of events remind you that there are possibilities for people who have lost their vision or ability to walk, and they provide hope. And having various firms involved in such projects will help create a more diverse environment,” said Kimei, who serves as director of a nonprofit group providing nursing care services in Sapporo.

People with disabilities weren’t the only ones at the event.

Michihiro Inoue, 52, a senior official at the department store chain Marui Group Co., said he was looking for solutions to help customers with disabilities who visit his outlets.

“Their satisfaction will help our company evolve,” he said.

Sudo of the People Design Institute wants more people to get involved in creating an inclusive environment where challenged people can actively participate in their community.

Sudo has a 22-year-old son born with cerebral palsy who has struggled throughout his school years and early adulthood with seclusion — all the more reason why he wants to create an inclusive society.

In cooperation with the Japanese soccer team Kawasaki Frontale, Sudo has been providing people with disabilities with job opportunities in organizing soccer matches since 2015. During these working experiences, they receive tickets from players and can watch the games for free.

“They feel motivated and the project has helped some of the participants find employment at various firms,” Sudo said.

Since Super Welfare Expo was first held in 2014, the number of visitors has been on the rise. This year’s event attracted about 45,000 visitors, up from about 40,000 last year.

Sudo’s work has been recognized worldwide. He spoke about his projects at the United Nations Office in Vienna as a keynote speaker in February.

“I feel it’s spreading worldwide,” Sudo said. “We want to make the most of upcoming big events in 2020 (related to the Tokyo Olympics). . . . But we hope to create a diverse society beyond 2020.”