“The shame of having a disabled child is too great. Disability is often hidden. My wife also has cerebral palsy. When she was 11, [it was] simply assumed that her mother wouldn’t want her to go to high school. She really had to fight to keep her at school. The situation is improving but it points to a culture of shame.”
On 26 July 2016, a man armed with a knife broke into a home for disabled people outside Tokyo and murdered 19 people in their sleep. He also injured a further 26 people at the home, before turning himself into the police with this explanation:
“It is better that the disabled disappear.”
Despite the brutality of the attack, the world paid little attention. Josh Grisdale, founder of Accessible Japan, a group that provides resources for those with disabilities, spoke to the IPF about the shock following the attack. But due to the ever-changing news cycle, the incident was quickly “overshadowed by the next big story and forgotten”.
However, those in Japan’s disabled community have remained affected. Many spoke out about the fact that, unlike other murders in Japan, the names and pictures of the victims were not made public – as per the families’ request. This raised one very important question:
Why is there a “culture of shame” surrounding disability in Japan?
Challenges for Japan’s disabled people
“We need to raise awareness more and more,” said 30-year-old Mizuki Hsu, who has been living with limited mobility since she was 2-years-old.
“We still have segregation between people with disabilities and without disabilities in education, employment and community living.”
Japan has a significant number of people living with disabilities. There are more than 36 million people with a physical disability, 5 million people with intellectual disabilities, and 32 million people with mental illnesses. In total, roughly 6% of Japan’s population is living with some form of disability.
Josh, 35, explained that one of the biggest challenges for disabled people is getting employment. While the government has implemented quotas for hiring disabled people, Josh said that some big companies only hire the required amount – and then create a subsidiary division where disabled people are placed, often without being given meaningful work. Companies have also been accused of hiring people with milder disabilities, while ignoring those with more severe disabilities – even if they are qualified for the role.
“Having meaningful work and being an active part of the local community is essential to creating a whole society. I would love to see more disabled people in the workforce – from coffee shops to company executives.”
The ‘culture of shame’
Academic Michael Gillian Peckitt, originally from northern England, has been living with a congenital condition since birth. Now living in Kobe, the 38-year-old told the IPF:
“The shame of having a disabled child is too great. Disability is often hidden. My wife, who is Japanese and a lecturer at a university here, also has cerebral palsy. When she was 11, [it was] simply assumed that her mother wouldn’t be wanting her to go to high school. She really had to fight to keep her at school. The situation is improving but it points to a culture of shame.”
Resources for disabled people in Japan
Accessible Japan was started in 2015, when Josh realised that there was a need for resources on accessibility in Japan. He explained that while the country is a great place in terms of accessibility, there was little information about it – particularly in English.
“Many people in Western countries have an impression that Asia – and Japan – is not accessible. I wanted to use Accessible Japan to inform people about the great accessibility available, as well as act as a resource for people with a disability who are planning a trip to Japan.”
Since no two disabilities are the same – and affect people in different ways – it is difficult to clearly define something as being “accessible” or “not accessible”. Instead, Accessible Japan provides as much information as they can through resources, opinion pieces and news on disability in Japan, letting individuals make informed decisions for themselves about how to get around.
“When I first visited Japan 16 years ago, I hardly saw any other people in wheelchairs moving around,” Josh said. “Now I sometimes have to wait at elevators because there are one or two other wheelchair users ahead of me.”
Government involvement in disability
Josh said that while a lot has improved since he first visited Japan in 2000, he isn’t certain as to whether credit should be given to the government or to social pressure.
“Most of the first battles fought by disabled people were with train stations and stores on an individual basis,” he explained. “[Since then], guidelines have been established by the government over time to ensure public places provide accessibility.”
However, with Japan set to host the 2020 Olympics, the government has been increasing pressure on stations, tourist sites and stores to be more accessible. In April 2016, Japan also passed a new law that banned discrimination against disabled people, preventing an employer from denying someone a job solely because of their disability. It also requires businesses and government offices to accommodate for the needs of those with disabilities. However, many have spoken out about loopholes in the new law.
“The law doesn’t really have any teeth. It says the business must accommodate ‘within reason’…. [which] leaves a bit too much to interpretation.”
Comparing accessibility with other countries
Mizuki is a researcher on employment of disabled people and disability law. Based in Tokyo, she has just returned from a year-long research programme at Syracuse University in New York. She told the IPF about the differences in accessibility between Japan and the United States.
“Architectural accessibility in the US is much better than it is in Japan because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Almost everywhere is accessible by wheelchair, even a small café or nightclub. I didn’t need to check accessibility in advance. In Japan, most new buildings are accessible but I still find inaccessible facilities in old or small buildings.”
Mizuki’s favourite thing about accessibility in the US was the restrooms. ADA has ensured that all restrooms in the US are wheelchair accessible. However, in Japan, wheelchair-accessible restrooms are “multi-purpose restrooms”, which means they can be used by wheelchair users, parents with babies, elderly people, and others.
“Usually only one multi-purpose restroom is available in a location and can be used by male and female,” Mizuki said. “Since everyone can use the restroom and it is very popular, often I have to wait to use.”
Despite this, Briton Michael believes that Japan is better for disabled people than the United Kingdom. Apart from Japan being more accessible than the UK, Michael has also faced more discrimination in Britain.
“When I visit the UK, people shout ‘benefit scrounger’ at me. I have been physically attacked twice in the last five years.”
What next for disabled people in Japan?
Mizuki believes that much more can be done to raise awareness about disabilities in Japan. She spoke about the need for disability advocates to speak up for the disabled community and also help the general public understand disability better.
She also had other suggestions as to how the government could help improve accessibility.
“The government should have certified people who can check and authorise the accessibility of each architecture. They should also have a budget to help the owner of inaccessible buildings to make buildings easily accessible. Japan is a small country and it would be hard… But this cannot be an excuse. We have to figure out ways to make the whole society more accessible for everyone.”