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With the postponed 2020 Tokyo Paralympics coming to an end this weekend, it’s time to examine the legacy of the Games insofar as what they mean for a diverse community of people with disabilities.

It’s clear the Games have helped facilitate changes in Japan’s physical environment as well as shifts in consciousness that have empowered some — though not all — disabled individuals who live and work in the country.

By providing activists, policymakers and members of the general public with an opportunity to reflect on the origins of barriers to accessibility in the nation’s past, as well as efforts currently being undertaken to resolve such issues, the Games have helped position Japan to lead global conversations about access in the future.

To fully appreciate the domestic and international legacy of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, however, we must first reflect on the recent history of disability activism and advocacy for accessibility in Japan.

Less than half of all train stations in Japan cannot be modified to include barrier-free features, and many also have few staff to help disabled individuals with boarding and disembarking. | GETTY IMAGES
Less than half of all train stations in Japan cannot be modified to include barrier-free features, and many also have few staff to help disabled individuals with boarding and disembarking. | GETTY IMAGES

Accessibility advocacy

Spurred on by decades of demonstrations by disabled individuals and a rapidly growing population of older people whose financial shortcomings were highlighted by the economic malaise of the 1990s, politicians in Japan passed several laws to make accessibility a legal requirement in the early 2000s.

Japan’s legislature first passed the Barrier-Free Transportation Law in 2000, making public transport operators responsible for improving access for older people and disabled individuals.

Lawmakers then passed a broader barrier-free law in 2006 that obliged developers of new and renovated railway stations, as well as certain other buildings and roads, to include such features as access ramps, elevators and other barrier-free aids when finalizing construction blueprints.

As these politicians eventually discovered, however, codifying barrier-free access in legislation alone did little to resolve accessibility issues.

Installing barrier-free features in existing facilities often proved to be a costly endeavor, leading developers to place them in remote areas to preserve the regular flow of pedestrian traffic and reduce expenses.

Placement issues were compounded by the fact that staff were not always trained to handle the new barrier-free features as had been intended.

Dedicated facilities for disabled commuters on trains are typically also used by other travelers, with disabled individuals often needing to share such spaces with pregnant women, parents with strollers, older people and other groups with access needs. | AFP-JIJI
Dedicated facilities for disabled commuters on trains are typically also used by other travelers, with disabled individuals often needing to share such spaces with pregnant women, parents with strollers, older people and other groups with access needs. | AFP-JIJI

What’s more, the facilities were also used by a range of visitors, with disabled individuals often needing to share such features with pregnant women, parents with strollers, older people and other groups with access needs.

Such factors contributed to logistical difficulties for many disabled individuals. Delays in travel have always been an inconvenience for people with disabilities, but the issue attracted extra attention in Japan following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of March 2011.

In many respects, the disaster that struck Japan in 2011 was a wake-up call for accessibility issues nationwide.

Many people with disabilities couldn’t leave their homes following the earthquake and tsunami, and those who could evacuate were often unable to secure adequate accommodation and compete with their nondisabled counterparts for access to resources.

The dearth of barrier-free features in temporary shelters led many people to deteriorate physically and cognitively, and, ultimately, disabled individuals accounted for roughly 25% of all subsequent deaths linked to the disaster.

Harsh criticism from local and global stakeholders led authorities to accelerate their efforts toward accessibility and adopt new legal frameworks to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities.

In 2013, Japan passed the Law for Elimination of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities, while the government ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014.

However, authorities still needed a practical vehicle to help enact those legal frameworks, and here is where officials hoped the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo would play an invaluable role.

Installing barrier-free features in existing train stations has often proved to be a costly endeavor, spurring developers to place them in remote areas to preserve the regular flow of pedestrian traffic and reduce expenses. | AFP-JIJI
Installing barrier-free features in existing train stations has often proved to be a costly endeavor, spurring developers to place them in remote areas to preserve the regular flow of pedestrian traffic and reduce expenses. | AFP-JIJI

Accessibility projects

Before the 2020 Games, a diverse group of stakeholders that included architects, engineers, educators, policymakers, members of the public and representatives from numerous disability organizations worked to develop a number of accessibility projects that would help promote inclusivity.

While their projects targeted multiple sectors of society, they often fell into two general categories: “hard” projects aimed at improving the physical environment and “soft” projects designed to increase awareness.

Among the hard projects pursued by stakeholders connected to the 2020 Games were initiatives to rebuild Japan’s transportation systems, infrastructure, accommodation and associated facilities. For example, consider efforts by East Japan Railway Co. and Tokyo Metro Co.. to install platform doors, inclusive signage and other accommodations for disabled travelers at train stations.

Perhaps the most symbolic of the hard projects was the construction of the National Stadium, which was built with guidance from members of Japan’s disabled communities. The stadium boasts more than 500 accessible seats, inclusive toilets for diverse users and various other accessibility features.

In terms of soft projects, consider public simulation activities arranged by organizations such as the Nippon Carefit Educational Institute, Dialogue in the Dark Japan and Accessible Japan Inc., which have all aimed to raise awareness about barriers to accessibility by asking nondisabled participants to engage in “disabling” exercises such as navigating a train in a wheelchair or dining in a dimly lit room.

Alternatively, there has also been a notable increase recently in the use of mapping applications such as Bmaps and WheeLog, which invite disabled users to contribute to shared community databases by uploading video, audio, photographs and text that details their accessibility experiences.

Collectively, these accessibility projects have helped to facilitate a genuine shift in consciousness among stakeholders in the public and private sectors, so much so that some have even recognized disabled individuals as an “untapped labor force” worthy of investment.

In January 2021, the Nippon Foundation acted on such recognition by donating ¥520 million ($5 million) to The Valuable 500, an organization of 500 global corporations committed to promoting the inclusion of disabled persons in the international workforce.

The Nippon Foundation’s donation was the largest of its kind from any single entity in the world, signaling to other Japanese firms that “inclusion as innovation” might be a profitable business model.

A wheelchair user watches an athletics test event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics at the National Stadium in May. The stadium boasts more than 500 accessible seats, inclusive toilets for diverse users and various other accessibility features. | REUTERS
A wheelchair user watches an athletics test event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics at the National Stadium in May. The stadium boasts more than 500 accessible seats, inclusive toilets for diverse users and various other accessibility features. | REUTERS

Implementation issues

Many disabled people in Japan have celebrated such accessibility upgrades and shifts in consciousness as a positive legacy of the Games.

However, projects did not always go as planned. Stakeholders working to improve access before the Games were constrained by a lack of resources, coordination issues tied to the short time frame for implementation and the spread of COVID-19.

Accordingly, projects occasionally failed to empower some demographics of disabled people, or prioritized measures for individuals with certain kinds of impairments at the expense of others.

One hurdle that developers faced ahead of the Games was a paucity of supplies and materials. Consider the results of a 2017 survey by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism, which showed that only 368 out of 102,766 hotel rooms in Japan were accessible to visitors with disabilities (0.4%).

Alternatively, look to a 2020 survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which revealed that only 65% of public schools had wheelchair accessible bathrooms. While builders raced against the clock to improve facilities for disabled visitors before the Games, they were ultimately unable to correct all long-standing inequities. Indeed, when they were able to make alterations to Japan’s infrastructure to deflect near-constant critiques, they were met with another set of challenges as standards of inclusion for one group of people sometimes excluded other groups.

Tokyo's National Stadium was constructed with guidance from members of Japan’s disabled communities. | KYODO
Tokyo’s National Stadium was constructed with guidance from members of Japan’s disabled communities. | KYODO

A second set of constraints that influenced developers’ activities was a lack of human resources. To overcome barriers in the physical environment that could not easily be removed, developers in Japan often had little alternative but to rely on designated personnel to assist disabled visitors.

However, because of the nation’s aging population, declining birthrate and shrinking workforce, such service providers were not always available to support disabled people with their activities. Nearly half of all train stations in Japan could not be modified to include barrier-free features, and many also had few staff to help disabled individuals with boarding and disembarking.

What’s more, many disabled individuals have been unable to secure aid from professional caregivers as Japan is experiencing a significant labor crisis on this front, meaning that current supply vs. demand is roughly 1 in 15. Such problems have predated the Paralympics, but have also hamstrung efforts to use the Games for change.

The greatest barrier to providing access ahead of the Games has arguably been COVID–19. Not only did the global pandemic temporarily halt new construction projects and postpone the Games for a year, it also exacerbated barriers in the physical environment and complicated care networks.

Some disabled individuals have struggled to secure face masks and essential medical equipment during the pandemic, while others have faced travel delays on public transport and an increased fear of infection as they waited for assistance.

Professional caregivers, already a precious resource, have become even more scarce after service providers closed their doors to prevent the spread of the virus between their employees and clients. And while some individuals were able to obtain support in group homes and residential institutions, such facilities often lacked the resources for social distancing and became sites of cluster infections themselves.

Despite such barriers — or maybe because of them — the Tokyo Games have offered an opportunity to cement a truly valuable legacy with regards to disability.

The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics have put the spotlight on Japan's efforts to improve accessibility and inclusion. | REUTERS
The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics have put the spotlight on Japan’s efforts to improve accessibility and inclusion. | REUTERS

Legacy of the Games

As mentioned, the Tokyo Games have helped the country to facilitate the implementation of hard and soft infrastructure reforms as well as generate corresponding shifts in consciousness that have improved access to education, employment, entertainment and other social sectors for disabled individuals. While the long-term implications of such innovations in accessibility are still unclear, it is likely they will continue to empower individuals with diverse bodies and minds for some time to come.

Of equal importance to the accessibility upgrades accomplished before the Games are those that could not be completed. The Games have cast a spotlight on remaining gaps in Japan’s accommodations for disabled people including, but not limited to, barriers in the physical environment, a shortage of human resources and inadequate assistance at welfare institutions. In so doing, the Games have sparked conversations about how to fix such problems that otherwise might not have occurred.

It’s worth noting that disabled people are not the only group of individuals who stand to benefit from such conversations. Consider how Japan’s rapidly growing demographic of older people, now approximately 30% of the total population, might also reap rewards from accessibility upgrades developed in response to the Games.

Alternatively, think about the friends and colleagues of disabled people and others who need access, whose daily activities are determined in part by their presence and capacity for independent activity. Surely, they will also benefit from the continued pursuit of hard and soft accessibility reforms.

Importantly, it is not only domestic stakeholders in Japan who will learn lessons from the Games, but also international participants interested in developing accessibility projects for their own countries. Japan’s attempts to improve access for disabled people, many of which have been highlighted by the Games, will serve as successful models to emulate and as cautionary tales of what to avoid for other nations. In fact, the closing ceremony of the Games is expected to mark the start of a transnational conversation about accessibility worldwide.

The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics have provided stakeholders in Japan a unique opportunity to reflect on the origins of barriers to accessibility in the nation’s past with an eye on resolving them in the present. By leveraging local experiences to facilitate conversations about how to improve accessibility for global populations of disabled people, those stakeholders can help deliver a more inclusive future.

Mark Bookman is a historian of disability in Japanese and global contexts based at the University of Tokyo. For more details, visit www.bookmanresearch.com.

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