While some are looking for big rewards from the swell of interest to come from the Tokyo Paralympics, Toshiro Ueda is convinced a brighter future for people with disabilities — and society as a whole — is built through the acts of one individual at a time.

Ueda, the chairman of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s disabled sports council, began his career during his university days. A chance encounter, when asked to teach swimming to those with disabilities, changed his life.

“I was studying to be a P.E. teacher,” he said. “I had joined the Japan Red Cross swimming lifeguard group. I joined that, and the group was entrusted with teaching swimming to (students with) disabilities. That was when I was in my second year, and I’ve been involved ever since.”

“I found physical education for (students with) disabilities more interesting than generic P.E. because I was teaching very responsive people. I was in charge of students with cerebral palsy, and if my lessons or my program were inadequate, the students wouldn’t return.”

Ueda draws a comparison between teaching sports to people with disabilities and able-bodied students, who are virtually prohibited from opting out.

“I felt that if I can’t figure out a good program, these people with serious disabilities might never know the joy of swimming,” he said. “In school, a teacher can say ‘do it,’ and kids have no choice. If you can’t show people the pleasure of sports, those with serious disabilities will opt out. People with disabilities don’t have to come. But if they don’t, their bodies will become more fragile. That critical factor, and the chance to impart the joy of sports, draws me to this.”

And now one of his missions is to show newcomers how they, too, can make a difference. Tokyo runs training seminars for volunteer sports trainers. On a recent weekend at the disabled sports center in Tokyo’s western suburb of Kunitachi, the job was getting people who passed the course to take the next step and get involved.

“We reached out to people who took our course but who are not currently active,” Ueda said.

“A lot of people are afraid of contact” with people with disabilities, he said.

“They are unused to them. It’s almost as if they think they can break them by touching them. For that reason, people with disabilities have come in to help us out, so our participants can interact with them.”

That afternoon, a group of gregarious men and women with disabilities of various ages helped the seminar participants get over their fears. As the would-be trainers heard their stories, inhibitions seemed to fade.

According to Ueda, there are about 3,000 volunteers teaching sports to people with disabilities in Tokyo, although a large number are university students who quit once they find work after graduation. Still, he said, each individual who goes to a training seminar and learns more about teaching those with disabilities, broadens the circle of understanding in society.

“Because Japanese are group-oriented, they tend to see individuals acting on their own as powerless,” he said. “Yet individuals can have a powerful impact if one by one they take action. Those efforts stacked one on top of another pile up and make a difference.”

Introductory courses on helping people with disabilities participate in sports are held nationwide and last for three to four days. Working knowledge of Japanese is necessary. Those interested can find times and locations of seminars through the Japan Para-Sports Association’s website.

“The fact is that a lot of people don’t know being a trainer in disabled sports is a thing,” Ueda said. “Of course now, with the Tokyo Paralympics coming up … the awareness level is quite high. But the real question is, what happens after the Paralympics are over? How much can we sustain?”

Toshiro Ueda | KYODO
Toshiro Ueda | KYODO

“At the time of the Nagano Olympics and the Nagano Paralympics, things really took off and interest soared. When they ended, it lost a lot of steam.”

“Within Tokyo we are trying to create a model for sustaining disabled sports participation as an intrinsic part of society. We are looking past the ‘Paralympics this’ and the ‘Paralympics that’ to find a plan for permanent change. (Eventually), within that framework (volunteer) trainers will have a role.”

Those who take the plunge can only learn the basics, including how rules for sports differ from those for people without disabilities. The courses try to get newcomers to understand that one’s disabilities are essentially “individual characteristics,” something to be understood in the process of assisting the disabled to enjoy sports.

“If someone has paralysis in the left shoulder, that doesn’t mean they can’t use their right. It doesn’t mean they can’t move,” Ueda said. “But if you don’t move at all, then the joints become immobilized.”

Ueda says the first step toward teaching sports to those with disabilities is learning what people can do.

“The truth is nobody’s going to be proficient at that time. After that, people on their own get involved with others in real situations, build experience. People with disabilities are all different. One has to talk to people, actually see what they can do with their own eyes and understand. Being able to do that is a necessary skill.”

Ueda said that as a university student, he learned that teaching students with disabilities forces one to prioritize the most fundamental skills of education, listening and understanding. It wasn’t part of his plan as a student, but interaction with individuals changed his life.

“In the end, it’s about people,” he said. “It’s not about, ‘This is what I want to do’ but about the people you meet.”

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