Nearly 90 percent of the public believes that disabled people still face discrimination in society, according to a recent survey by the Cabinet Office. That was six points higher than those answering the same in the last survey in 2007. Clearly, the general public feels strongly that people with disabilities need equal access to transportation, employment and all facilities.
Government statistics show that Japan has at least 6 million individuals, though some independent groups put the number as high as 7.5 million, with physical, mental or other disabilities — approximately one in 20 Japanese.
The issue is not confined to Japan. The World Health Organization reported in 2011 that nearly 1 billion people worldwide have a disabling condition. Japan, though, now has the public support necessary to make changes to improve conditions for people with disabilities.
However, so far, although the government has taken some initiative, not much has been achieved. Although then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama set up a committee in December 2009 to address the issue, it has not done enough, as the survey reveals. The number of those surveyed who think there is no discrimination fell 5.4 points to 9.7 percent since the last poll in 2007. There are few other issues in Japan with such widespread consensus.
Removing barriers and shifting attitudes is not easy. Promoting social inclusion is even more difficult. However, with such vast public support, new steps are likely to succeed. The broadcasting of the Paralympics this summer was inspiring, and recently many TV dramas, books, magazine articles and news features have helped change public attitudes far better than anything the government has tried.
The government might focus on ensuring that the disabled have access to education from an early age alongside children who are not disabled. That would help to ensure that the latter learn respect and tolerance for differences in people.
A Cabinet office committee discussed a bill to ban discrimination against the disabled, but the committee report is in danger of suggesting “simple” changes that miss the overall picture. Needless to say, access ramps, Braille signs, and other practical improvements in barrier-filled facilities are greatly needed.
In addition, employers need to consider ways to increase employment opportunities for disabled people. The traditional view that the burden is on employees to adapt to their jobs needs updating so that workplaces also accommodate the disabled.
Japanese culture has long had a fixation on some imagined dream of cultural sameness, but now might be a good time to focus on the strength of diversity and reaffirm its commitment to equal treatment for all.
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