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Last January, a major scandal broke over budget hotel chain Toyoko Inn Co.’s illegal removal of special guest rooms and parking spots set up for the disabled after the construction of those facilities had passed official inspection. Toyoko Inn converted the special rooms into normal rooms and the special parking spaces into a lobby and a storeroom.

Toyoko Inn President Norimasa Nishida tried to justify the transgression by asserting that only a few customers a year would have checked in to the special rooms. Nishida’s thinking was wrong. The disabled were likely to have avoided Toyoko Inn not because it was a budget hotel, but rather because it discriminated against them.

Some businessmen with disabilities no doubt would like to stay at a budget hotel, and most people develop some form of disability as they age. Due to falling birthrates and the aging population, Japan’s working-age population is set to decrease. The nation must build a social infrastructure that makes it easier for disabled people to work. It’s not a matter of welfare; it’s a crucial strategic challenge for the nation.

In the short term, making individual buildings barrier-free raises costs, and private-sector support alone is hardly enough to pay for such work. In this context the government has enacted two laws: one to promote accessible architectural designs and the other to make public-transport systems barrier-free. It is clear that an attitude like that taken by Toyoko Inn cannot be accepted.

Although these laws have produced some results, in many buildings there is only one barrier-free entrance and one barrier-free toilet, with few signs showing their locations. Requiring the disabled to spend time looking around for barrier-free facilities imposes an additional burden on them.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is considering combining the two laws into a basic law incorporating universal designs that cover diverse facilities, with an emphasis on information services.

One example of a universal design is a project called “Free Movement Assistance,” which we are pushing to help people move around freely. The project calls for establishing a nationwide network of radio-frequency IDs, radio markers and other tags that will enable computer-based equipment to automatically identify places and provide suitable information services. One application of this national infrastructure would be to assist the disabled.

The system, whose specifications are open, will not only help the public move around freely but also make it possible to provide travel information to foreign visitors as well as shop information to the Japanese public. Some people are likely to contend that since the infrastructure would be built with tax money, it should not be used for commercial purposes. But that argument is misguided.

Take highways, for example. Motorists freely use highways built by the central government and local governments, helping stimulate the economy and increase tax revenues. That is how the economy works. It would be impossible to build a highway network for a specific purpose if we adhered strictly to “the beneficiary pays” principle. That would inconvenience everybody.

The United States, which is far ahead of Japan in expanding a universal-design infrastructure, took a series of legislative actions in the 1970s to accommodate the large number of disabled Vietnam War veterans. The Television Decoder Circuitry Act, for example, required new TV sets to contain caption-decoding chips and broadcasters to include captions in their broadcasts. Almost all television programs now carry captions.

Television programs with captions have come to be used by nonnative speakers to improve their skills in English, and for many other purposes. Nowadays, databases of television captions with search engines are available. They make it possible, for example, to search scenes containing certain words in television news programs.

In Japan, meanwhile, large-scale national efforts are reportedly under way to develop an original search engine. Among the functions targeted for development is one to automatically recognize and search for words and images in a television program.

Although the development efforts are commendable, it will take a long time to realize the goals. Automatic recognition capability may be possible for certain topics such as “travel” and “road guide,” but in a television program, topics are constantly changing and conversations are often unclear. Precise recognition of vocal sounds involves frame-of-knowledge problems of artificial intelligence. It is unrealistic to expect a technical breakthrough in this field in the near future.

While the U.S. already uses caption databases as a resource in the Internet age, Japan is working to develop an even more advanced technology. The question is which system will benefit the most people and lead to effective innovation.

Japan must tackle the strategic challenge of pushing infrastructure development to make society more efficient, taking advantage of the ripple effects in this network age.

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