While there has been tangible progress toward achieving full barrier-free access for people with physical disabilities through the installation of ramps, elevators and other pieces of infrastructure at public facilities, measures to clear obstacles for people with mental disabilities have been sorely lacking in Japan.
But that is slowly changing and civic groups have begun to pursue such projects and rewrite newspaper articles, government documents — and even manga — to better accommodate readers that have mental disabilities.
One of the organizations spearheading the movement is Yokohama-based Slow Communication, which publishes easy-to-understand news articles on its website. Every sentence is short and kanji characters are printed alongside smaller kana to assist with comprehension.
A recent article reads in part, “On Jan. 26, 2019, tennis player Naomi Osaka won a tennis championship. The championship won by Osaka was the Australian Open.”
As a rule, double negatives and metaphors are not used in constructing sentences, and the text contains many line breaks. Readers can also listen to an audio recording of the article being read at a slow pace.
Slow Communication was founded three years ago by university faculty members and newspaper reporters with the purpose of “providing the necessary information so that mentally disabled persons can be included in society and make their own decisions.”
It also conducts other projects such as drafting simple contracts for people with mental disabilities as part of its welfare service.
“Regular news and newspaper articles are too difficult for me to understand,” says Miki Koike, 46, a member of the organization who has a mental disability. “When people around me say, ‘Did you hear about this news?’ I’m sad because I can’t follow what they’re talking about. It helps to have more simple information.”
The Yokohama Municipal Government cooperates with the group and produces documents for people with mental disabilities.
For example, it has published a pamphlet that explains in plain language the city’s welfare program for persons with disabilities, and is also considering creating application forms for local government administrative procedures written in a way that is more easily understood.
“Following the 2016 law banning discrimination against persons with disabilities, we would like to continue to enhance our efforts,” said a city official.
There is even an undertaking to remodel manga.
Manga is traditionally read right to left, starting in the upper-right corner of the upper-right panel, and is written in a style that uses plenty of onomatopoeia.
“The thinking is, since they’re manga they’re probably easy to understand — but this is actually not the case,” says Kazuma Yoshimura, a professor of manga studies at Kyoto Seika University.
For example, vertical lines etched down the face of manga characters, which are used to express bewilderment, or the order in which the panels are to be read, are drawn on the assumption that the reader has the ability to imply what they mean, Yoshimura points out.
The professor and a group of other researchers have begun to create two comic scripts: a regular one that includes onomatopoeia, and another one with a simplified panel layout and few symbols.
Last year Japanese publisher Jusonbo released a book called “An Invitation to LL Manga,” which explains how to produce easy-to-understand manga for people with mental disabilities. LL is an abbreviation of the Swedish for “easy to read.”
“This is even easy for non-Japanese to read, so it can help contribute to the realization of an inclusive society,” Yoshimura says.
Even so, more help is needed, he says.
“Publishing on a commercial basis is difficult, so we need public financial support to cultivate such cartoonists.”
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