Tile strip leads disabled in new pathsBy Stephanie Strom
The strip of studded, egg-yolk-yellow tiles that leads up the stairs and through the entrance of the main building of Tokyo University's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology is an unlikely gauge of social change.
But it speaks volumes about the progress Japan has made in coming to terms with the disabled. The strip leads to the office of Satoshi Fukushima, a deaf and blind associate professor who was hired this spring to create the university's "barrier-free" studies program, a curriculum that aims to eliminate the huge barriers -- social, physical and psychological -- that have prevented the disabled from participating in society here.
There are similar programs in other Japanese universities, but the establishment of a program at Tokyo University, Japan's oldest, most prestigious such institution, represented a watershed for the disabled. "I was shocked," said Satoru Misawa, the secretary-general of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples International. "I knew Professor Fukushima had been appointed to several government committees and that he was very active in offering his opinions, but Tokyo University is still very conservative, a real ivory tower."
Mr. Misawa says that Japanese society has rather suddenly become more sensitive to disability than in the past, when tradition dictated that anything not conforming to established social norms be rejected or at least hidden.
The disabled offer a variety of reasons for the sudden evolution in attitudes. A heightened awareness of the needs of the elderly, which are similar to their own, has helped, as has the growing visibility of disabled people in everyday life. "No One's Perfect," a book about the life of Hirotada Ototake, a young man who was born without arms and legs, has become a huge best seller.
Another reason is an erosion of Japan's traditional social cohesion caused by its lingering economic troubles: higher unemployment and increased income disparity have widened the gap between haves and have-nots.
Computers and the Internet are also breaking barriers. Although he cannot see or hear, Mr. Fukushima cruises the Internet and answers e-mail on his own, using a special Braille keyboard to read and respond. And a colleague doing research on virtual reality is seeking ways in which the Web can help the disabled.
"I think one good sign is the number of disabled people you see just walking around the streets," Mr. Fukushima said, even though he himself cannot, of course, literally see them. "We are in television programs and commercials, and not only as the major attraction or point of the show but simply as a reflection of society."
Tokyo University has gone to great lengths to meet Mr. Fukushima's needs. He lost his eyesight at 9 and his hearing at 18, and although he speaks Japanese well, he relies on translators who tap on his fingertips a system of "finger Braille" invented by his mother.
None of the expenses associated with supporting him -- like those for special computer keyboards, for five translators and for the yellow pavement whose studs help guide his feet as he walks -- are borne by the Education Ministry, which finances national universities. "The biggest problem was and remains financial," said Yoichi Okabe, who was the head of the research center and recruited Mr. Fukushima. His expenses are squeezed out of the research center's already tight budget, which was not expanded to accommodate him.
Mr. Okabe said his proposal to have Mr. Fukushima start a disabled studies program faced only mild resistance. "When I first submitted his name," he said, "some professors argued that it would be risky to accept such a person who is deaf and blind, but I persuaded them to hear a lecture from him so they could understand for themselves his ability to communicate." In the end, he said, the faculty voted unanimously to hire Mr. Fukushima.
But is acceptance limited only to the celebrated disabled like him? "Since I became disabled three years ago, attitudes have really changed," said Takane Shimizu, who was paralyzed from the waist down after suffering an arterial collapse in 1997. "Not nearly enough, but still a great improvement has taken place."
Not so long ago, disabled people like him would have been hidden in their homes, much like Bo Radly in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and even close friends and neighbors might not be aware of their existence. While Japan is known globally as a paragon of civility and politeness, it has traditionally demanded a level of conformity that excludes those with physical and mental disabilities.
"Being disabled is nothing special in America, where the disabled are mingled into normal life," said Mr. Shimizu, who continues to run his small beauty parlor with the help of a "standing" wheelchair. "But in Japan, you didn't see the disabled on the street until recently, and I still feel sometimes that ordinary people don't really see me, that they look past me or try to ignore me, deny my existence."
The tangible improvements in the lives of Japan's disabled that have occurred are in many ways a by- product of remedies aimed at more conventional citizens, particularly the elderly.
The government passed a new transportation law last year, requiring that all public transportation be accessible to the disabled, but legislators voted for it chiefly because they perceived it as a way of making subways, trains and buses handier for their older constituents.
"There has been much research in the past that studies welfare issues and the issues of the elderly," Mr. Fukushima said. "But that research is primarily addressing other fields that happen to be related to the disabled" -- not the disabled themselves.
And the disability insurance aimed specifically at the special needs of the disabled is not fully designed to make them independent. When Mr. Shimizu, the hairdresser, asked for government support for the purchase of a wheelchair that would allow him to stand up and work, the authorities initially denied his request because he intended to use the wheelchair in his business.
No such contradictions arise in popular culture and in the media; the disabled are increasingly being incorporated into television programs, movies and articles. One of the most popular television series, "A Beautiful Life," is a drama about a hairdresser whose love interest is a woman confined to a wheelchair. In a new movie, a young woman in a wheelchair is the villain. "The primary focus is not on them," Mr. Fukushima said. "They are simply there because they would be there in real life."
Real life is starting to mirror pop culture. Take the case of Yohei Yagi. One of the last images he remembers seeing before going blind at the age of 6 was of an astronaut floating in space. Now, as an associate senior engineer at the Micro Space Systems Laboratory's advanced mission research center, he is controlling the flight patterns of satellites, using a computer display with a Braille system especially developed for him.
Politically, the disabled are gaining ground, too. In April, Hajime Sen, who has cerebral palsy, was elected to the Kamakura City Assembly. To speak, Mr. Sen uses a board containing the Japanese phonetic alphabet; when the leadership calls for a show of hands, he raises his left leg, the only one he can move.
Despite the progress the disabled have made, however, the future isn't trouble-free. Japan's mounting financial pressures may inhibit their support services. Retrofitting subway and train stations with elevators and ramps is expensive, and Japan's new government has promised to clamp down on public expenditures in an effort to rein in Japan's escalating debts.
"Now, all of the professors I meet here at Tokyo University tell me I did a very good job in bringing Professor Fukushima here," Mr. Okabe said. "They're very proud of the act, but you know, they never say anything about the budget."
Copyright ©2001 The New York Times Company. Published 07/07/2001.