Before entering the Paralympic Games, Tokyo embarked on a wave of projects to make itself more accessible to people with disabilities. Almost all railway stations now have lifts, and some have safety barriers on the sides of the platforms to protect the visually impaired. The approximately 3,200 newly constructed hotel rooms are wheelchair accessible, as are the stalls in many of the public bathrooms.
Paralympic volunteer Yuto Hirano welcomes the changes. But when he rolled in his wheelchair one recent afternoon toward a building that was advertised as accessible, a nearly imperceptible barrier stopped him in his tracks. He hit a slight incline leading to the automatic front doors and couldn’t get on it without anyone pushing the wheelchair back.
“There have been three or four occasions where they said, ‘Yeah, we can accommodate you,’ but when I get to the location, I can’t really go in,” said Hirano, 31, an accountant with a technology company. ” “So I had to turn around and go straight home.”
Paralympic organizers have repeatedly promoted the power of the Games to draw attention to the needs of not only elite athletes, but all disabled people, speaking of the opportunity to build a society “free from discrimination or barriers of any kind”. We do.
Advocates, too, have acknowledged this grand international moment, saying it shows how people who are physically and mentally challenged can achieve at the highest level. They say that in addition to inspiring upliftment, the infrastructure changes will help improve the daily lives of people with disabilities in Japan.
Yet even these advocates wonder how long meditation will last in a country with a long history of keeping people with disabilities out of sight. In Japan, many children with disabilities are still educated in separate schools or classrooms, large companies operate separate subdivisions for disabled employees, and people with intellectual disabilities are often housed in institutional facilities.
“Successes are rarely coordinated,” said Mark Buchman, a historian of disability in Japan who has lived in and out of the country for 13 years. “If you make one school accessible, but there is no workplace waiting at the other end, it doesn’t matter. If you make the train accessible but the school is not, it doesn’t matter. If you build an accessible toilet in the building, but the building itself is not accessible, it doesn’t matter.
“Accessibility isn’t just a moment where you sort things out,” Buchman said. “Will this process continue after the Olympics, when the international pressure is over?”
The questions raised by disability activists are not limited to the 9.6 million people in Japan who the health ministry classifies as disabled – more than 7% of the population. With the world’s oldest population, Japan will need to accommodate its growing number of residents with the measures that people with various disabilities rely on to move around every day.
Advocates said the Paralympics provided an opportunity – some would say missed – to hear from a larger range of people how to improve access. If the games could be held with international audiences, he said, it could provide a quick panel of everyday experts to test whether the measures actually work in practice.
“I wanted spectators including people with disabilities to go to Paralympic venues, be in Tokyo and say, ‘Hey, it’s missing, or it’s not good enough,'” Hirano said, “and for a lot of people to feel it first And put pressure on the government to reform for the better.
As an example, he pointed to the large, boxy taxis that have been added to the cab fleet in Tokyo to increase reach. Wheelchair users have said that taxi drivers often do not stop at their cheers or ask them to charge extra, arguing that they have to roll out ramps to help them board. is cumbersome.
Toyota Japan Taxi spokesman Keisuke Seto acknowledged some of the complaints but said that “we have improved the ramp removal process to make it easier for drivers,” reducing it from a 63-step process to a 24-step process. Is. .
In addition to infrastructure, activists said the Paralympics can inspire people with disabilities who may feel limited in what they can do.
Daisuke Uehara, who won a silver medal in para ice hockey at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, said, “I know people who have become disabled at some point in their lives and are confined to their rooms.” “But by participating in sports, they could feel that they could re-enter society despite their disability. It gives them a sense of possibility. “
Perhaps equally important is the possibility of opening the minds of capable people.
“Some people think there’s nothing people with disabilities can’t do,” said Kazuhiro Uno, an English teacher at Tsukuba School for the Blind, who said some of the school’s alumni were competing in sports. “I think the Paralympic Games will be a kind of proof or sign for him.”
Even after banning domestic spectators, the Tokyo organizing committee has allowed school children to enter some Paralympic events. Watching the Games live, said Tokyo organizing committee chairman Seiko Hashimoto, will help children “realize a more inclusive society”.
Japan is the only country to host the Paralympics twice. When the 1964 Games were held in Tokyo, then-Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko adopted the Paralympics as one of their primary reasons, helping to gradually change attitudes in Japan.
86-year-old Hideo Kondo, who participated in six different events in 1964 because organizers had trouble recruiting Paralympic athletes for Japan, recalls that for the first time at the Games they allowed people in wheelchairs to move freely and in public. was seen roaming around.
After living and training in a facility which he described as “hidden from the rest of society”, he marveled at the confidence of competitors from abroad and the buses welcoming wheelchair users to the Olympic Village.
“I was being put in a cage,” Kondo recalled. “The Paralympics were my moment of enlightenment.”
Despite decades of change, many advocates say Japan still lags behind other major countries. As recently as 1996, the Japanese government sponsored a program under which thousands of people were forcibly sterilized due to intellectual disability, mental illness or genetic disorders. And it was only in 2016 that Japan passed an anti-discrimination law, two years after signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Some of the backwardness attitudes in Japan can be traced to schools, in which children with disabilities are largely excluded from mainstream classrooms. And with government quotas mandating that people with disabilities make up 2.5% of the workforce of public agencies and 2.3% of private firms, some large companies have set up separate subsidiaries specifically for disabled workers.
“I think it was really rooted in our mindset that we are different and it’s okay to be different,” said Amy Aizawa, who leads global partnerships at Mirino, a consulting firm that helps companies better serve people with disabilities. Helps to develop the environment.
The Paralympics promise to turn stigma into a celebration and present a story of triumph over adversity. But for athletes, the best outcome may be that they are viewed only as athletes, not people with disabilities.
Swimmer Takayuki Suzuki, who has won five medals for Japan since the Tokyo Paralympics began on August 24, said he wants equal treatment.
“My hope,” he said after finishing swimming in the heat of the 200m freestyle event earlier this week, “is that sports played by people with disabilities will be received with as much enthusiasm as those played by able-bodied people. the games to be played.”