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Beyond the Games: Can the Paralympics’ success spur change?

14 12 22

With the postponed 2020 Tokyo Paralympics coming to an end this weekend, it’s time to examine the legacy of the Games insofar as what they mean for a diverse community of people with disabilities.

It’s clear the Games have helped facilitate changes in Japan’s physical environment as well as shifts in consciousness that have empowered some — though not all — disabled individuals who live and work in the country.

By providing activists, policymakers and members of the general public with an opportunity to reflect on the origins of barriers to accessibility in the nation’s past, as well as efforts currently being undertaken to resolve such issues, the Games have helped position Japan to lead global conversations about access in the future.

To fully appreciate the domestic and international legacy of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, however, we must first reflect on the recent history of disability activism and advocacy for accessibility in Japan.

Less than half of all train stations in Japan cannot be modified to include barrier-free features, and many also have few staff to help disabled individuals with boarding and disembarking. | GETTY IMAGES

Accessibility advocacy

Spurred on by decades of demonstrations by disabled individuals and a rapidly growing population of older people whose financial shortcomings were highlighted by the economic malaise of the 1990s, politicians in Japan passed several laws to make accessibility a legal requirement in the early 2000s.

Japan’s legislature first passed the Barrier-Free Transportation Law in 2000, making public transport operators responsible for improving access for older people and disabled individuals.

Lawmakers then passed a broader barrier-free law in 2006 that obliged developers of new and renovated railway stations, as well as certain other buildings and roads, to include such features as access ramps, elevators and other barrier-free aids when finalizing construction blueprints.

As these politicians eventually discovered, however, codifying barrier-free access in legislation alone did little to resolve accessibility issues.

Installing barrier-free features in existing facilities often proved to be a costly endeavor, leading developers to place them in remote areas to preserve the regular flow of pedestrian traffic and reduce expenses.

Placement issues were compounded by the fact that staff were not always trained to handle the new barrier-free features as had been intended.

Dedicated facilities for disabled commuters on trains are typically also used by other travelers, with disabled individuals often needing to share such spaces with pregnant women, parents with strollers, older people and other groups with access needs. | AFP-JIJI

What’s more, the facilities were also used by a range of visitors, with disabled individuals often needing to share such features with pregnant women, parents with strollers, older people and other groups with access needs.

Such factors contributed to logistical difficulties for many disabled individuals. Delays in travel have always been an inconvenience for people with disabilities, but the issue attracted extra attention in Japan following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of March 2011.

In many respects, the disaster that struck Japan in 2011 was a wake-up call for accessibility issues nationwide.

Many people with disabilities couldn’t leave their homes following the earthquake and tsunami, and those who could evacuate were often unable to secure adequate accommodation and compete with their nondisabled counterparts for access to........

© The Japan Times

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