On a recent Wednesday morning, Rie Saito wasn’t giving a lengthy, energetic speech about her campaign pledges through a loudspeaker, unlike most of her competitors on the stump.

Instead, Saito was seen happily approaching voters on the street one by one, offering them a handshake and mouthing the words that have partly defined her campaign ahead of the July 21 Upper House election: “I am deaf.”

“Depending on who she’s speaking to, she changes her method of conversation from sign language to lip-reading and writing,” said Makiko Shimizu, her communication assistant.

Whenever Saito, who completely lost her hearing in her infancy, seems to have trouble reading voters’ lips, Shimizu promptly steps in to serve as her impromptu interpreter, enunciating each syllable for her so she can better grasp what they’re saying.

Saito is among a handful of candidates with disabilities who have thrown their hats into the ring in a bid for a seat in the Upper House.

Japan has seen blind and wheelchair-using individuals ascend to the national political scene before, but the extent to which Saito and others would require extra accommodations if elected has refueled talk of a “barrier-free Diet,” signifying the need for a further update of the infrastructure and protocol in the legislature.

Having lost her hearing when she was just 1 year old, Saito grew up without being able to hear, making her speech sound different from that of those who can.

At times, her speech can be difficult to understand.

Rie Saito holds a board that reads 'Toward a town where people's minds can be heard' on March 29 at the Kita Ward Office in Tokyo. | KYODO
Rie Saito holds a board that reads ‘Toward a town where people’s minds can be heard’ on March 29 at the Kita Ward Office in Tokyo. | KYODO

The 35-year-old Aomori native chronicled her past experiences as a hitsudan (messaging in writing) hostess in a best-selling book. In that role, she relied solely on her notepad and pen to win the hearts of her customers at a nightclub in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district.

Saito debuted as a politician in 2015 when she was elected to Tokyo’s Kita Ward assembly, where she completed a four-year term in April.

“Given we have seen no lawmaker with a hearing impairment emerge in the postwar era, I think the Diet is full of barriers,” Saito, who is running for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“In that sense, I think it’s time we begin including people with disabilities to discuss various systems and tools,” she said. “As a disabled person myself, I thought I should fulfill a role no one else seems to be playing in national politics.”

Saito is not alone in seeking to represent the community of those with disabilities.

Reiwa Shinsengumi, an iconoclastic opposition group formed by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto, is fielding two candidates with severe disabilities who use specially designed wheelchairs, including one who is completely paralyzed due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neuro-degenerative disease.

Yasuhiko Funago was diagnosed with the deadly disease in 2000 and later opted for a mechanical ventilation system to extend his life. His main medium of communication is a sensor-equipped computer that he controls with the biting of his teeth, Yamamoto said.

“If I’m elected, people would see lawmakers communicating with me in the Diet or trying to make efforts to accommodate me, which I think would go a long way toward changing the way people with disabilities are treated on the street,” Funago said via his laptop, which read out a prepared statement.

Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, told a news conference that “all I can do is speak,” noting her limbs are all but immobile. Her hand, she said, is just barely capable of navigating her wheelchair-bed’s control unit.

Yamamoto said it’s “nonsense” that key decisions on disability-related policies are being made in the Diet when there are hardly any disabled lawmakers among the 700-plus seats.

“Why is no one representing those in such pain? I think people like Kimura are needed to make the Diet a place that can be sensitive to everyone’s needs,” he told the news conference.

But even if they are elected, questions remain over how prepared the Diet is to accommodate lawmakers with disabilities.

The Diet does have some experience making those kinds of adjustments in the past and has inched toward a barrier-free environment over the years.

In 1977, wheelchair user Eita Yashiro won an Upper House seat, prompting the Diet to refurbish its hall to allow for his entry, according to Upper House official Yuichi Watanabe. Visually impaired lawmakers have also risen to prominence in the past, including Toshikazu Hori, who was nearly blind when he earned an Upper House seat in 1989 as a member of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, according to media reports at the time.

Both the lower and upper chambers assure the public on their websites that their buildings are installed with ramps and elevators to accommodate wheelchair users who want to tour and observe various sessions. People with hearing impairments who are interested in observation can request the services of sign language interpreters or note-takers, the Lower House says.

Even so, next week’s election could move the Diet into uncharted territory: It has never catered to completely deaf politicians like Saito or those with more severe disabilities like Funago and Kimura, officials from both chambers said.

Rie Saito, who completely lost her hearing when she was 1 year old, speaks to voters near Tokyo’s Akabane Station on July 10 as she campaigns for Sunday’s Upper House election. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Rie Saito, who completely lost her hearing when she was 1 year old, speaks to voters near Tokyo’s Akabane Station on July 10 as she campaigns for Sunday’s Upper House election. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

Although there is no written law or rule prohibiting people who aren’t lawmakers from setting foot in the main Diet chambers where plenary sessions are held, the entry of wheelchair helpers or other aides is unlikely to be permitted without special approval from the chairperson, the officials said.

Doubts were also cast on the Diet’s ability — and willingness — to handle those with disabilities in 2016, when a plan to invite an ALS patient to speak at a Lower House panel was canceled because he would have required an extra amount of time for communication.

In a statement released last year, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations cited this incident as a reminder why a current law seeking to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities should be revised to put the Diet on par with other institutions and oblige it to “reasonably accommodate” those with special needs.

Kosuke Okabe, a professor of disability studies at Waseda University, said that underpinning the Diet’s overall unpreparedness for accommodating disabled lawmakers is the “assumption that people with disabilities can’t possibly be lawmakers.”

“Such an assumption is a form of discrimination, albeit perhaps a subconscious one,” he said. “It’s only after those with disabilities are elected that people will start thinking what true changes would be needed, for example, to allow those on wheelchair-beds to reach the podium to make speeches.”

In this context, Okabe said he welcomes the candidacy of Saito and others in the Upper House election. But, he said, considering the population of those with disabilities in Japan, their voices won’t be fully represented unless there are “at least dozens of them” in the Diet. A 2018 health ministry survey shows that an estimated 9.36 million people have physical, intellectual or mental disabilities in Japan — about 7.4 percent of the total population.

While accommodating deaf politicians like Saito may be unprecedented on the national level, it’s far from the case among local municipalities. In addition to Tokyo’s Kita Ward, the cities of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, and Toda, Saitama Prefecture, have in recent years seen those with hearing difficulties become members of the assembly.

When Saito was elected as an assemblywoman in 2015, Kita Ward invested about ¥4.5 million in introducing what is described as a speech-to-text conversion system for its sessions, said Takashi Kigure, a ward official.

It’s a device that essentially transcribes speech in real-time and sends the text instantaneously to a tablet set up near a listener with a hearing impairment, Saito in this case, so she is kept abreast of the exchanges happening around her.

Kigure said the last four years have seen the system work fairly well in transcribing exchanges at plenary sessions, which tend to be scripted and gravitate toward formal language. Its accuracy, however, is prone to “drop substantially” when the system is employed to decipher more spontaneous, heated debates in smaller committees, where “it sometimes doesn’t respond at all” depending on the speed and accent of a speaker, Kigure said.

Nonetheless, Saito said the system was helpful and voiced hopes the Diet would eventually follow suit.

“What I think is ideal is that lawmakers, instead of making a rushed effort to introduce systems and equipment, will spend a good amount of time deliberating how they can lay the groundwork for a more diverse Diet befitting its reputation as a symbol of democracy.”

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