Out of Japan's population of 127 million, including foreigners, about 3.6 million have physical disabilities, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Over the past few years, the government has enacted several laws to facilitate the daily lives of disabled people and realize a so-called "barrier-free society."
"Many organizations for disabled people sometimes just complain to me about how tough things are for their members. My first reaction used to be 'so what?' as I listened to their claims. Now, I always try to find a solution to such complaints," says Makoto Nakazawa, 48, president of Barrier-Free Company in Tokyo. Nakazawa, who was born with a muscular disease, has been in a wheelchair all his life. He is a leading consultant in universal and barrier-free designs in Japan.
Nakazawa says society is now starting to pay more attention to the diversity of people's needs. "Up until now, the dominant idea has been that in a mass production society, products and services are for 'Mr Average,' which of course meant people with no disabilities. Everyone else had to adjust themselves to the idea. The situation is changing now and it has become more common for businesses to offer a lot more choices."
Nakazawa, who worked for industrial machinery company Kubota Corp for 15 years, launched Barrier-Free Co in 2001 as a consultant to the private sector on how to incorporate barrier-free designs in products, the workplace and buildings in general. He also offered training to companies' employees on how to deal with disabled people and the elderly. He says he launched Barrier-Free as a privately listed company, rather than a non-profit organization, so that many people could be involved in barrier-free issues as a business.
Nakazawa said he first got interested in barrier-free issues during his first overseas trip to the United States in the late 1980s. "When I arrived in the U.S., I didn't feel that I was a disabled person because everybody there spoke to me and offered me assistance in a natural manner," he recalls. "I thought 'disabilities' were just another part of the diversified society in the U.S. In Japan, people would just stare at me. I think the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) has been very effective in American society in terms of communication with the disabled. It got me thinking that I could something in Japan to remove barriers in our daily lives."
After he returned to Japan, Nakazawa started doing volunteer work for the Japanese Red Cross and created a new edition of its "Accessible Tokyo" English guidebook with information on barrier-free facilities in Tokyo, such as hotels and department stores. He was responsible for creating the Japanese-English bilingual version, which became the first step in his consulting career.
As soon as he launched Barrier Free, many companies started asking Nakazawa for advice on how to implement universal and barrier-free designs in their services, products and facilities. Nakazawa says, "Companies told me that different organizations for the disabled were always requesting them to do different things. For example, those texture paving blocks may be good for the visually-impaired but they are not so useful for those wheelchairs in some situations."
Nakazawa says he cannot represent every organization for disabled people; instead, his goal is to help more disabled people function with everyone else on a daily basis. "In Japan, while disabled children are encouraged to study at special schools rather than at normal schools, after they finish school, they are suddenly expected to live in society with non-disabled people without special consideration once they become adults."
Nakazawa thinks one of the problems in Japanese society is the lack of communication between disabled and normal people. "They really don't know each other. For example, most people tend to think that all hearing-challenged people can understand sign language. But actually, only 15% of them can. In addition, only 10% of visually-challenged people can read Braille."
Not afraid to act, in 2007, Nakazawa sued Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward and the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) over the substandard barrier-free passage from a station to his apartment. "City officials who are in charge of the barrier-free policy know very little about the problems. I tried to advise them to repair the passageway but they ignored me. What they built was just a waste of tax money." The case is ongoing.
However, Nakazawa believes that what is important in society is not always barrier-free facilities or hardware, as he calls it, but a better effort in people's hearts to understand disabled people. "Japanese tend to build something first and make it look plausible without actually understanding whether there is 'heart' to it."
Nakazawa says Japanese people still need someone to help them consider the needs of disabled people and encourage them to take action. "That's my role, I think," he says, adding that he sees his barrier-free consultancy as a sustainable business rather than just charity. "I'm not talking only about disabled people but the elderly, as well. Companies are now aware that their services and products have to cater to the needs of an aging society."
For further information on Barrier-Free Company, visit: http://www.barrier-free-jp.com/© Japan Today