In August, it was reported that central government ministries and agencies, not to mention national legislative offices and local governments, have for years been fulfilling their legal responsibility to hire certain numbers of people with disabilities by fudging criteria for determining what qualifies as a disability. The media’s position on the matter has mainly been to point out that the public sector is getting away with murder while the private sector struggles in an honest fashion to reach similar quotas. The government is supposed to set an example for companies when it comes to social change, so its intentional neglect in doing so is doubly appalling.

Coverage has focused on how government malfeasance is business as usual, thus dovetailing with the scandal surrounding Tokyo Medical University’s manipulation of test scores to limit the number of female applicants admitted to the school. These organizations did bad things in order to protect entrenched work cultures, but by presenting the issue within that framework, the media has failed to enlighten the public as to why it is beneficial to hire people with disabilities in the first place. All we hear about is how the system is “unfair.” In the case of the university, however, it is women who are treated badly, while in the case of employment padding, it’s the private sector that’s injured, not people with disabilities. Firms that fail to hire enough people with disabilities are fined up to ¥50,000 a year for each position they neglect to fill, while there are no penalties inflicted on public sector organizations that fall short of their quotas.

In its Aug. 29 explanation of the law, the Asahi Shimbun said that the aim of the quotas is to “create a society where people with disabilities can live normally.” All laws that attempt to create a level playing field for people with disadvantages are similar in nature, but each group has specific circumstances that need to be tackled. Prominent activist Katsunori Fujii noted during a discussion of the matter on the web program Videonews.com that public infrastructure is more of an immediate concern for people with physical disabilities and one the authorities have yet to address meaningfully.

In its own reporting, the weekly Bunshun made much of the notion that ministries did not explain their reasons for making public apologies for padding disabled rolls. All they did was pledge to follow the law in the future. In response to the scandal, Finance Minister Taro Aso told TV Asahi that the number of workers with disabilities is “limited,” so there will be heated competition for hiring them thanks to the quotas, as if that were an acceptable excuse.

The Tokyo Shimbun implied that while companies are justified in decrying the government’s hypocrisy, the only reason they comply with the law is because they will be punished if they don’t, suggesting that their purposes are self-serving.

The newspaper attempted to bolster this point by interviewing employers holding up their end at considerable cost. An office equipment company affiliate located in Hino, Tokyo, employs 12 people with certified mental disabilities who scan documents for digital files. They take a 10-minute break every hour during a six-hour work day because, as one 48-year-old man with depression explains, there are people who “can’t concentrate for long periods of time.” The company also allows them two days off a month to consult with physicians and they meet with a counselor employed by the company every day. Between 2009 and 2012, the company could not meet its quota and ended up paying ¥13 million in penalties. The company’s disability employment rate is now 2.47 percent, well above the 2.2 percent rate mandated for private companies. It has even received commendations from the labor ministry.

A human resources representative explains the company’s efforts in practical terms: Not only did they implement these changes to avoid fines, but also in order to bid for public sector projects. The difficulty was finding work that people with disabilities could perform.

On the other hand, the president of a company in Shizuoka Prefecture that processes hand towels for the restaurant industry and employs 24 people with developmental disabilities told the Tokyo Shimbun that he treats each of his employees “as an individual,” regardless of their abilities, adjusting work situations accordingly. He does this not to satisfy quotas, but to maintain a payroll of loyal workers.

By looking at the scandal from the employers’ point of view, the press invariably misses much of the story. On Sept. 17, the Tokyo Shimbun reported on hearings held by opposition parties in the Diet to reform the disability hiring law. Since the purpose is to “promote an inclusive society,” people with disabilities were invited to explain their situations. Several representatives of groups with disabilities discussed the quotas, but the real problem, they say, is that the working environment of public employers is not suitable for people with disabilities. Strict adherence to hiring requirements would naturally correct this problem, which is what happened in the private sector, but existing law does not allow public entities to provide extra services — such as transportation assistance — to its employees.

It’s the same old refrain. People with disabilities can’t hope for a level playing field in the public sector because government entities don’t want to change the way they do things. It’s easier to cheat and lie.

As Fujii said during the Videonews discussion, “They simply don’t want to hire (people with disabilities),” but employing them not only provides opportunity to those workers, it also benefits society by changing work culture for the better, something the government says it wants to do but seems unable to accomplish.

“By placing people with disabilities at the bureaucratic level, these employees can effect policy changes to their own advantage,” says Fujii, and, in turn, that improves the work situation for all employees. It’s not just about fairness.

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