• Chunichi Shimbun

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One day in mid-November, instructors at the Miyagawa medical reformatory, which treats delinquent teenage boys with developmental disorders, in Ise, Mie Prefecture, experienced how people with the disabilities perceive the world by wearing virtual reality goggles and watching a video.

“Oh, it’s so bright I’m blinded,” said one instructor. “The vision is so narrow. It’s scary,” said another.

It was the first time for a juvenile reformatory in Japan to conduct this sort of training session, which is aimed at helping workers understand the difficulties faced by people with developmental disorders in their everyday lives.

The video includes a couple of scenes, each about 3 minutes long, with one showing what can happen when people with developmental disorders go out into the daylight from an apartment room. When the door opens, everything turns all white.

An image provided by Yukie Nagai, project professor at the University of Tokyo, shows how some people with developmental disorder see things in bright daylight. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN
An image provided by Yukie Nagai, project professor at the University of Tokyo, shows how some people with developmental disorder see things in bright daylight. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

In a scene showing noisy places such as restaurants or stations, the vision is blurred, making it difficult for them to see expressions on people’s faces. In some instances, they would see something similar to a sandstorm.

The VR system was developed by a team of the University of Tokyo Institutes for Advanced Study led by project professor Yukie Nagai. The team offers sessions at schools and workplaces in cooperation with Litalico Inc., a firm based in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward that supports workers with developmental disabilities. It was the first time they had organized a session at a reformatory.

Unlike other medical reformatories where every detainee is treated by a doctor, the Miyagawa reformatory offers educational therapy to minors age 12 or older with mental disabilities and developmental disorders who were ordered by family courts in the Tokai, Hokuriku and Kinki regions to be sent to reformatories. They are detained for roughly a year.

Currently some 50 boys and men age between 14 and 21 are detained at the reformatory, out of which 70 percent are those with mental disabilities, and the remainder are those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or having ASD tendencies.

About 1 out of every 100 people is believed to have ASD, which includes Asperger’s syndrome, and often have trouble with social, emotional and communication skills. Causes remain unclear.

At the reformatory, detainees receive education to understand their wrongdoing and the feelings of the victims, in addition to taking classes for school education and vocational training.

But many have problems reading or concentrating. Since they tend to perceive even everyday sounds as noise and feel frustrated by it, they often feud with each other and get into trouble.

Although instructors were aware of such characteristics to some extent, they weren’t sure how to deal with them. Therefore, the reformatory invited Nagai and Litalico staff so that they would have a better idea of how to cope with such problems.

One reformatory welfare officer who participated in the VR session recalled the fact that many boys couldn’t concentrate during meetings because of surrounding noise.

Looking at the images through the VR goggles, she said, “I learned that it would be exhausting and stressful for them just to go through their daily lives. I will give the best possible consideration in choosing the venue to hold meetings.”

After the session, the instructors discussed the need to consider environmental noise when meeting the detainees and to carefully confirm what the detainees mean by their words.

Some of the detainees also experienced the VR system.

“They might repeat the same offense if they don’t understand their disabilities objectively,” said Tatsuya Fujita, managing instructor of the reformatory who organized the session.

Misconduct by people with ASD is often triggered by being isolated from society, because of difficulty interacting with others or emulating others’ behavior.

“I want to make (this reformatory) a place in which the boys who came here think it was worthwhile,” Fujita said.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Dec. 14.

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