Notes from the Obstacle Course
Dr. Michael Peckitt
When it comes to public amenities, whether it be public transport, city ward offices, or the ubiquitous local museum; Japan is reasonably well set up for people with disabilities, at least in terms of physical access to public intuitions, spaces and buildings. Perhaps the one noticeable exception to this rule seems to be government buildings.
NHK reported on Saturday 12th November, that The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had booked a room in a government office in Chiyoda ward, Tokyo for a meeting held on November 11th that was inaccessible to committee members that use wheelchairs. The room was on the second floor of the Ministry’s building and there was only a staircase; which meant at least one committee member who uses a wheelchair was unable to attend the committee meeting. According to NHK, although the committee member came to the front entrance of the Ministry building with hopes of attending the meeting; but he was unable to access the committee room.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has since issued an apology, saying it regrettably did not due its due diligence, stating:
“Although it is a place to discuss policies for persons with disabilities, a preliminary examination was not carried out when choosing the venue, and I apologize to members and am sorry for the lack of consideration.”
At least in the instance, an apology was issued quite quickly, however it is disheartening to see how short a memory The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare appears to have when it comes to disability access matters. In May 2016, The Japan Times reported an instance of a man with ALS who could not give testimony before a Health, Labor and Welfare committee:
“The Lower House Health, Labor and Welfare Committee did not allow Hiroki Okabe, 58, to appear as a witness May 10 to discuss a bill on supporting people with disabilities.
The Democratic Party initially proposed the idea of inviting him to the session, but the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was reluctant to do so, saying “it would take time to communicate.”
In that case, Okabe, the person who was due to give testimony, was given another date the next week, although this time it would be for an Upper House committee meeting, as the Upper House would be discussing the rights of people with disabilities the week after the Lower House.
What made that instance particularly disheartening is that it happened one month and ten days after Japan’s new anti-disability discrimination law, written after Japan in 2014 became the 140th signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a sub chapter of the UN Declaration of Human Rights– The Law to Eliminate Discrimination against People with Disabilities – became an enforced statute on April 1. This law is meant to ban “unjust discrimination” against people with disabilities and asks that government agencies and private businesses take “reasonable accommodation” to remove social barriers for people with disabilities. Once again an apology was issued, this time by the Speaker of the Lower House, Tadamori Oshima, who promised to try and prevent further incidents:
“I seriously take to heart (what has happened). I will make efforts to deal with such situations”
If there merely only been one such incident coming so soon after a new anti-discrimination law had started to be enforced, it would have been easy to dismiss this as ‘teething problems’ that the Japanese government faced in implementing a new law, however two incidents within six months is a concern, and some might argue, constitutes ‘unjust discrimination’ and is definitely a failure to make ‘reasonable accommodation’ for people with disabilities.
As a person with a disability who works at a university in Japan, which as with government; is often notorious for its old buildings and institutional practices, I am not without sympathy for the Japanese government. However, surely all that needed to be done is to check and see if any members of the Health, Labor and Welfare committee, or anybody appearing before it has needs as a person with a disability, then book the committee room accordingly? It is an easy thing to fix and it surely cannot be beyond human capability to find a ground floor meeting room where the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry can meet if disability is on the agenda and if committee members or witnesses who have disabilities are going to be in attendance regardless of the issue being discussed?
Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Nada-Ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. He runs the Japan and disability related website ‘The Limping Philosopher’ (https://thelimpingphilosopher.wordpress.com) and you can find him on Twitter @Peckitt. Check out his ebooks on Amazon.