National / Politics

Disabled Japanese lawmaker makes history as first in wheelchair to attend Q&A session

Kyodo

A lawmaker with severe physical disabilities highlighted the various difficulties disabled people encounter in their daily lives on Tuesday as she attended her first question and answer session in the Diet since she was elected in July.

According to the House of Councilors, her attendance marks the first time a lawmaker requiring a wheelchair and an aide due to a disability has asked questions during a Diet session.

“I want to ask questions so more rational considerations will be made” in society for people with disabilities, said Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, to the standing committee for land and transport.

Kimura won a seat in the July 21 Upper House election as a member of Reiwa Shinsengumi, an anti-establishment political group founded in April by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto.

For roughly 30 minutes she raised questions about the barrier-free accessibility of evacuation shelters during typhoons and other natural disasters, as well as the availability of toilets for the disabled.

The land and transport committee has established rules stipulating that the time needed for a government-paid secretary to ask questions as a proxy, or for an aide to provide assistance, would not be counted within allocated question time.

Kimura, who did not use a proxy speaker in the session, instead used her own words to engage in a discussion with transportation minister Kazuyoshi Akaba and others, by having her aide display questions written on pieces of paper.

“I want to work toward solving issues regarding barriers and discrimination from which I have suffered until now,” she told reporters following the session.

“It was physically tough, but my desire to make improvements was strong so I was able to push on,” she said.

Members of the ruling and opposition parties praised the momentous session, with Democratic Party for the People leader Yuichiro Tamaki calling it “groundbreaking.”

“The Lower House needs to proceed with barrier-free design so as to not lag behind the Upper House,” he said.

DPP lawmaker Kazuya Shimba said at a news conference, “It’s wonderful that people with different viewpoints can become lawmakers and speak out. I sincerely respect (her).”

Kimura attended her first Diet session on Aug. 1, and participated in a land and transport committee session on Aug. 5 but did not have the opportunity to speak on that day.

Fellow Reiwa Shinsengumi member Yasuhiko Funago, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, a condition also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is scheduled to attend his first interpellation on Thursday at a Diet session with the education, culture and science standing committee.

Days ahead of the August session’s opening, the Diet carried out renovations to improve barrier-free access for the two lawmakers, including creating space for larger-style wheelchairs and installing a button-activated voting machine.

“The fact that Kimura asked questions in the field of disability welfare based on her own experiences is of great importance,” said Kazuhiko Abe, a professor of disability welfare at Tohoku Fukushi University. “Even looking toward the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics next year, thinking about what may be barriers for the disabled in their daily lives through their questions may carry the significance of triggering change in society.”

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