Often people with disabilities use phrases like “access for all” and we usually mean “access for us”. However, as I watch the accessibility landscape change over my years in Japan, I have noticed that it really does mean for all.
I have been living in Japan for 8 years now but first visited Tokyo in 2000. Things have certainly changed! When going on the train, I often faced challenges. Not every station had an elevator, so there were places I couldn’t go or I would need to get out at a nearby station and drive the rest of the way in my wheelchair. Sometimes, there were elevators but not for public use – the first time I went to the electronics district, Akihabara, I was guided through staff-only areas and unceremoniously exited the station in a back-alley where the garbage was thrown out!
The move to accessibility was initiated by the Center for Independent Living in Japan. I remember talking to the director many years ago and he told me how they fought for an elevator at their local station for years. They were constantly told that “the cost of installing an elevator wasn’t justifiable to serve the needs of just a few people”. They kept up their fight and eventually got an elevator, and later they helped get laws passed to ensure accessibility transportation and in many buildings.
Fast-forward a number of years and you will now find elevators, ramps, accessible toilets (read more about Japan’s accessible toilets here: https://www.accessible-japan.com/wheelchair-accessible-toilets-in-japan/), etc everywhere. Was it worth the money to accommodate so few?
Yes. Not only because the rights of persons with disabilities are important, but also because it turns out it wasn’t just for “a few”.
In the years before elevators and ramps being available everywhere in Japan, mothers of small children would have to carry strollers/prams up and down flights of stairs at the station just to go shopping. The elderly were trapped in the area near their house and lost their independence. So, through the demands of those few people with disabilities, an unseen myriad of people gained more independence.
It always makes me smile when I see the most frequent users of ramps turn out not to be people in wheelchairs, but the staff of stores or delivery service employees who didn’t need a ramp but certainly find it useful when moving items around on a dolly. I smile because it breaks down the faulty logic that accessibility is just for a few people.
Creating accessibility is often seen as cost-inefficient, but in reality, it truly is for all.