Disabled in Japan campaign against tradition and ignorance. They seek better public facilities and an end to limiting attitudes

Every year for the last three years, Shunji Kadota has taken a trip that is an everyday affair for most Japanese. But he makes the 372-mile journey from Osaka to Tokyo in a wheelchair. The annual tour is Mr. Kadota's way of drawing attention to what he feels are grossly inadequate transportation facilities for Japan's disabled population. Kadota wheeled along the road for 40 days, stopping at train stations to point out the difficulty in simply boarding a train.

Historically the Japanese attitude toward disabled people has been that they should be taken care of out of sight, away from the rest of the population. Now Kadota and other disabled activists are challenging that attitude and the inadequate facilities that they feel discourage their full participation in Japanese life.

``[Japanese authorities] understand the disabled also want to travel, but they seem to have no idea that we also have to commute or go to school,'' Kadota argues. ``Some even wonder whether it is okay for a disabled person to go out alone.''

Kadota says he did not realize how far behind Japan was in its treatment of disabled persons until he traveled to Europe and the United States a few years ago. ``I was so shocked when I found that it was easier to live in Europe for two months, even with the language barrier, than to stay in Tokyo for only a week.''

In Europe, people were willing to help him go up and down the stairs. But, when he visited Tokyo to see a friend, ``I had to avoid rush hours and felt hesitant to ask busy, hurrying people for help.''

And in San Francisco, he learned to enjoy moving around almost entirely by himself. An elevator at every subway station made it easier for wheelchair users to reach the platform and there was no gap between the height of the platform and that of a train door. Such access usually is not available in Japan.

Most Japanese live their daily lives without seeing the disabled. Since the war, the main policy of the Japanese government has been to place such people in special homes where they either live full-time or spend most of the day engaged in therapy, training, and other activities.

Eizaburo Maejima, a member of Japan's parliament, tells a story to illustrate how little Japanese people understand the disabled. One day he deliberately fell out of his wheelchair in the middle of the crowded Ginza shopping area in Tokyo.

``People gathered around me, but they were at a loss how to make me stand up. Some even rushed to a telephone to call an ambulance,'' he recalls. Eventually a foreigner helped him. ``Most Japanese have not used or touched a wheelchair.''

Educational policy has also worked to separate disabled children from others. Only in 1979 did Japan finally require that every disabled child receive an education. Parents were delighted at first, but found that their children were placed only in special classes.

In recent years, the disabled and their families have turned to activism to make people understand their needs are changing. They are calling for a life which is as close as possible to normal. An official of the Health and Welfare Ministry, which oversees most programs for the disabled, says Japan is waking up to this reality.

``Right after the war, it was rather good news for the disabled to reside in a special home with meals and clothes,'' explains Shiro Asano. ``But, now that everybody has enough food and clothes, we have come to realize that there should be something more to life. They should enjoy more freedom and privacy by living in the community with able-bodied people.''

But, experts say, it will take many years to realize such integration because it requires overcoming deep-seated prejudices. Japanese culture stresses the virtue of the individual conforming to the needs and values of the group.

``Japanese do not want to accept someone who looks different from the majority,'' Mr. Asano said.

Besides, in trying to catch up with the Western powers after the war, ``Japanese have become so much achievement-oriented. The nation has respected those who can contribute to the society most and ignored the others,'' he added.

The key to change may be as simple as the Japanese finding out that the disabled are no different from themselves.

That was the discovery of Keiichi Matsumoto, an employee of Keio Plaza Intercontinental Hotel, which hosted the 16th World Congress of Rehabilitation International in September. ``I found they just happened to be disabled and that they were all the same as us,'' he says. ``But, without that opportunity, I don't think I could feel this way.''

For the father of a retarded girl, the key is to change the minds of future generations through co-education. ``It's okay to have special classes for disabled children. But, they must have a chance to mingle with those who go to ordinary schools,'' says Taizo Hasegawa. ``The memory that they met and played together in childhood will make them friends forever.''

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