National / Social Issues

Learning what life in Japan is like for people with disabilities

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

One recent Sunday, 7-year-old Yukito Takanashi of Tokyo was dribbling a soccer ball on a makeshift field. At one point, he put on an eye mask like those worn by blind soccer players. But he took it off after a while, feeling somewhat uncomfortable.

The boy, who has experience playing the game with other children who, like himself, have autism, said it was “difficult” to play with his eyes covered.

“It’s a good chance to learn about the struggles people with disabilities go through that most people fail to notice in their daily lives,” Takanashi’s father, Ryoichi, 32, said. “(Trying it for yourself) can trigger empathy and will make you feel more respectful toward people who are struggling (with disabilities) but are active (in society).”

The Takanashis were at the annual Lives Tokyo event last month at the Tokyo Midtown complex in Minato Ward, aimed at raising awareness of the many challenges people with disabilities face.

And with the clock ticking down to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, organizers are calling for the creation of an inclusive society where everyone — regardless of physical or mental challenges — is given opportunities to show their talent and pursue the path of their choice.

“We’re trying to really create an ongoing movement to open up society to be more accessible, more innovative and create more opportunities, more jobs for citizens with disabilities,” said Theodore Guild, chairman of Hands On Tokyo, a group that provides volunteering opportunities in Japan and the organizer of the Lives Tokyo event. He calls it a “grassroots, bottom-up movement.”

Guild said Japan needs more collaboration between the public and private sectors, and nonprofit groups, to make sure people with disabilities enjoy the same human rights as the rest of society.

Visitors at the event tried on prosthetic limbs, experienced what it is like to participate in games and simulations as a person on the autism spectrum, and listened to successful life stories from athletes with disabilities. On the sidelines, entrepreneurs and businesses offered job opportunities for such people.

A similar event last year led to the launch of about 500 projects that people with disabilities were able to join, organizers said.

Creating a diversified environment is key to success in businesses as well, said Elly Keinan, president of IBM Japan Ltd., who was also at the event. “The best ideas come from diverse teams,” he said.

NavCog, a pilot app for the blind, is one such example, according to Keinan. The app, which uses AI to provide cognitive assistance for the visually impaired in their daily lives, was developed by Chieko Asakawa, a computer scientist at IBM and an expert in accessibility. She lost her eyesight at the age of 14.

The app measures how close someone or something is to the user, can inform the user about the facial expression of the person they are talking to and can even assist with cooking or shopping by, for instance, suggesting that they choose healthy products.

In Japan, a law for people with disabilities obliges companies and government organizations to employ a certain percentage of people with physical, intellectual or mental impairments. The current target is 2.2 percent of the workforce at firms with least 46 workers and from 2.3 percent to 2.5 percent in national and local government bodies. But according to the labor ministry, people with disabilities accounted for just 1.97 percent of the workforce in 2017 at firms obliged to meet the target.

“The government does call for embracing diversity, but it is often in the context of offering a helping hand to those with disabilities, not viewing on an equal level. But I hope they’ll focus on promoting people’s strengths,” said Hikaru Wakimoto, 28, who came to the event looking for hints on how to improve communication and the working environment within her workplace.

Her organization, Tokyo Diversity Lab, offers programs enabling people to experience the world from the perspective of people with disabilities by, for instance, writing calligraphy in absolute darkness. Wakimoto works with hearing and visually impaired colleagues.

“We need to show that environments with people with disabilities and able-bodied people working together work to our advantage,” she said. “For instance, the senses of blind people are enhanced in complete darkness and in such an environment they have an advantage.”

Looking ahead, Jesper Koll, the economist who heads the investment firm WisdomTree Japan, believes the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics can serve as a chance for Japan to showcase its strategies toward an inclusive society and develop technologies to improve the quality of life for people with physical or other challenges. “We all become, in some form, a little handicapped as we go through (life),” Koll said.

And like this year’s Lives Tokyo, which involved around 1,500 people who were either helping or visiting, organizers hope more people will be able to have a better awareness of the issue and become involved.

“Essentially, we believe that volunteerism is very important to advance areas where there’s a social need in society,” Guild said.

Rhea Ibay, 16, a Filipina living in Kanagawa Prefecture who came to Japan nearly a year ago, was one of the volunteers at the event, where she hoped to learn more about people with disabilities.

“I wanted to go outside of my comfort zone and give back to the community just a little bit at this young age,” she said.

If she gets a chance, Ibay said she wants to be a volunteer to support athletes and spectators at the Tokyo Games.