As the Paralympic Games begin, Japan’s efforts to improve accessibility and inclusion are in the spotlight, with many arguing that there is still much to be done.
Around 4,400 athletes with disabilities compete in Tokyo at the world’s largest parasport tournament.
It’s a place for sports history, but also a venue that can transform attitudes towards people with disabilities.
“It’s a valuable event,” said Masaaki Suwa, a Japanese para-canoeist who missed the cut for the Tokyo Games but will be cheering on the Japanese team on television.
“They do great things, but they are not supermen. I want people to know that they are human, just like you,” the 35-year-old told AFP.
It’s a bittersweet moment for Suwa, who was hoping to compete in his hometown, but counts on other Paralympians to make an impact on Japanese society.
“I hope (the Paralympics) will be a stepping stone to enable people to live more closely with disabled people,” said Suwa, who uses a wheelchair.
Disability rights experts and activists paint a mixed picture of the situation in Japan.
Progress has been made on accessible infrastructure, with officials highlighting accessibility for both people with disabilities and the country’s large elderly population.
A barrier-free enforcement law has been revised twice in the last few years in order to promote barrier-free accessibility in public institutions.
– ‘Riot’ change –
Special efforts have been made in Tokyo’s mammoth train system, with elevators in operation at around 96 percent of the stations as of 2019, the city government says.
By 2019, 82 percent of Tokyo subway stations also had platform gates to protect the visually impaired passengers and others – up from 56 percent in 2013.
Even new hotels with more than 50 rooms must make at least one out of 100 barrier-free.
“Japan appears to be well advanced in terms of the number of accessible facilities,” said Miki Matheson, deputy head of the Paralympic Delegation of Japan.
The story goes on
But the three-time Paralympic gold medalist, who lives in Canada and is in Tokyo for the Games, says accessibility doesn’t mean inclusion.
“When I’m back in Japan, I’m often treated as a disabled person,” said Matheson, who uses a wheelchair.
“I live in Canada without even realizing my disability.”
Activists say the workplace is an example of the barriers that remain.
According to government regulations, employees with disabilities must make up at least 2.3 percent of the workforce in all companies. Larger companies face fines for non-compliance.
In 2018, the government was forced to apologize for routinely overstating the number of disabled people on its staff to meet the quotas.
Motoaki Fujita, professor of sports sociology at Nihon Fukush University and parasports expert, says Japan has become more inclusive, “but the change is still marginal.”
About 57 percent of those surveyed by the Fujita team last year said they “safely or somehow” believe that people with disabilities are weak and have difficulty living with non-disabled people.
That is only slightly less than the 61 percent who thought the same in a 2014 survey.
– Paralympic “catalyst” –
The Tokyo Paralympics will be held with almost no spectators due to virus rules, some fear that it could lessen their impact on Japanese society.
“The Paralympics are a very good chance to change people’s thinking,” said Shigeo Toda, director of a Tokyo-based research institute that studies the lifestyles of people with disabilities.
“But we can’t help but think that the momentum could wear off if people can’t see them in person,” said Toda.
Saki Takakuwa, a Paralympic runner who competes with a prosthetic blade, worries about the effect of the ban on spectators.
“I know people will see the games on TV, but I wonder how they will react,” she told Mainichi Shimbun.
“Compared to previous games, I find it difficult to hope that people will feel something,” adds the 29-year-old, who is contesting her third Paralympic Games.
International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons admits the ban on viewing is “a challenge,” but argues that broadcasts will hit billions worldwide.
“The games themselves are a catalyst,” he told AFP.
“It’s when people see athletes in action and then that change really takes place.”
In Japan there is “still a lot to be done”.
“But we believe we have started to see a change.”
si-amk / kaf / jfx