By Alexa Fukuoka
When you decide to move abroad, it will obviously require you to make some adjustments. Dealing with a new culture, new social norms, even new food can make every day a bit more stressful (and exciting) than if you had stayed put. Slap a disability on top of that, and things can get downright tough.
Having said that, moving to Japan after suffering from significant vision loss did change my life in many positive ways. If you’re facing a new and sudden disability later in life, sometimes you just have to get creative in order to live the life you want. Here are a few things I wish I’d known before moving to Japan with a disability.
There are programs in place to help you, but you’re going to need assistance accessing them.
I didn’t know that I might qualify for a disability designation until an HR advisor at my previous job mentioned it to me. He kindly printed out the paperwork and suggested that I take it to my eye doctor to see if I qualified. I took the form to my doctor in the hopes that he would at least give me a note that explained to people that I need help sometimes. Unfortunately, when I went, it was late in the day, I hadn’t called ahead about the form, and he told me it was a long, expensive process and I probably wouldn’t qualify. Disheartened, I let it go for nearly two years.
After a friend mentioned that I might qualify, I told her the story. She said it didn’t sound right and we should get a proper test and recommended her ophthalmologist. Another friend who is a native Japanese speaker kindly volunteered to take me and help me understand the tests. Once the doctor saw how narrow my field of vision really was, along with the other complications I just try to ignore, he was able to assess my level of disability accurately. On a scale of 1 (most profoundly blind) to 7 (some visual impairment), I’m a 5. Now I have a paper card I carry everywhere that explains to people that I have vision issues. Oh yeah, and getting the paperwork filled out and sent was only about $100, and the formal approval just took a few weeks.
Getting around *might* be more difficult.
In America, if I want to go somewhere, I just order an Uber. In Singapore, it’s grabcar. And so on. The fact that I can no longer drive is a hindrance, but it’s not the worst thing thanks to the rideshare revolution. Sadly, in Japan, that hasn’t worked out.
Not to complain, public transportation is fantastic here. But when you are visually impaired and are searching for a tiny address somewhere on a street, it’s pretty exhausting. Since I’m not great at directions, I do sometimes have to rely on taxis, which can be pretty hit-or-miss. Sometimes they take you right to where you want to go, sometimes you are dropped off in the general vicinity and expected just to know where to go.
A good data plan & smartphone will save you.
For my first six months in Japan, I did not have a local phone. I was not sure I’d be staying and didn’t want to sign up for a contract only to break it soon after. Once I settled in and got a plan, the data allowance was abysmally low. This left me scrounging to save data, trying to only use it for maps and translations.
My advice is if you can find a plan with a lot of data, get it. I’ve been lost, I’ve not known what someone was saying, and I’ve been trying desperately to find Worcestershire sauce among the million other sauces in the grocery store. Download the Google Translate Dictionary. Spring for the extra gigs of data if you can afford it. Seriously, even if you can see well, you’ll need it.
Outside of Tokyo, personal space is abundant.
We have all heard about crowded trains where white-gloved attendants pack people in like sardines. Sure, I’ve been on a few trains like that, but for the most part, living in Japan is a haven for personal space. I have terrible balance, I see double permanently, and if someone approaches from my right side, they basically don’t exist.
Luckily, in most places in Japan, personal space is heavily respected. No one bashes into me, everyone stays out of my way, and if I stumble or miss seeing someone, it almost never results in anything but a quick apology. Also, white canes a totally respected (at least in Fukuoka, I haven’t noticed them elsewhere) so it isn’t as stressful to participate in everyday foot traffic as one might think.
Japan has been incredibly welcoming of my disability. If you plan ahead (as you likely already have to because vision loss makes that necessary anyway), you shouldn’t have a problem. Feel free to reach out to me or leave a comment if you are considering moving to Japan and need information on anything vision-related!
Alexa Fukuoka is an American writer and expat who moved to Japan five years ago. To learn more, please visit www.aahuth.com.