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executive impact

Building a barrier-free society

By Taro Fujimoto

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

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If this man can continue to make worthwhile recommendations for all-ages accessible buildings and facilities, his services will be increasingly in demand...

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This is the only country in the world that has really high tech and private facilities for using the toilet. Toilets here in general respect ones dignity. Many older restaurants are not able to handle wheel chairs at all, and that is due to lack of space.

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I spent several months on crutches last year and noticed how horrendously difficult it is to get anywhere without having to use stairs. station platform escalators are often going in the wrong direction and rarely sync up with any seating areas or otherr escalators/elevators. very few ramps or disabled access toilets. I was lucky to only have 3 months of inconvenience, feel bad for those who suffer it every day.

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@ Shouganaika: I had the same experience when I broke my foot back in 1999 (I broke my foot walking along the road at a local festival, because there was a paving stone missing over a drainage gully and I fell into it). It was just before the term "barrier-free" became more recognised in Japan (partly as a result of the KimuTaku drama Beautiful Life, which featured a heroine who was in a wheelchair).

I stayed at a rather good barrier-free ryokan in Yudanaka Onsen in Nagano a few years back: http://www.avis.ne.jp/~hakura/

There are a number of design/architecture companies now in Japan that focus on barrier-free/universal design, and local authorities are increasingly trying to formulate strategies around this. A few years ago, I was co-opted onto a prefectural committee for devising a strategy for universal design. In the way of these types of committee, I'm not sure how much it actually achieved....

If you want to know more about the types of barriers we are likely to face as we all get older, I'd recommend reading "Disguised" by Patricia Moore, a US industrial designer and gerontologist whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a conference on housing in Niigata back in 2003.

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1979 was the year that the UN had designated "Access: A Right, not a Privilege." A bit late Japan!

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Libertas, tell Canada to catch up. My home country sucks compared to what I see in Japan.

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Actually "access" can be had, even at many places that don't seem to have it. Station workers are always taking people up stairs on little stair-climbers, or closing off escalators and reversing them.

I guess some people don't like the inconvenience of having to ask another person for help.

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I guess some people don't like the inconvenience of having to ask another person for help.

In my own case, there were no escalators available in a lot of the stations I visited at the time and no sign of any stairlifts either. For the sake of fairness, I have to add that things have improved tremendously at many of the Niigata stations since then.

However, with regard to asking people for help, first you have to find someone to ask, which isn't always easy. Plus, for people for whom physical barriers are a way of life, having to constantly ask for assistance is demeaning and deprives them of a right that able-bodied people take for granted - being able to go anywhere (within reason) without having to rely on someone else. It might be OK once or twice, but I would imagine it would become pretty tiresome quite quickly.

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I guess some people don't like the inconvenience of having to ask another person for help

well, there you go, you guessed. can't fault you for being wrong

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Shouganaika, Zaichik, I'm not saying that it's ok not to have fully enabled facilities. I'm all for normalization. I'm just pointing out, especially to those a little too eager to slam the whole country, that things are not perfect, but they're improving. Changing attitudes are an indication of this.

When I arrived in Japan, ten years ago, there was nothing. Now, I'd say 95% of the stations and stores I see are fully enabled. The ones that aren't are really old and literally carved out of the rock, like Bakurocho station.

Still, the station attendants who take people up and down escalators do it with a pleasant attitude that I never see on the faces of station workers in Canada. There, I feel like just buying a subway ticket is inconveniencing them. Many Canadian subway stations have no toilets too. And forget about using the toilet in a restaurant where you haven't bought something.

People with physical disabilities still have to put up with in Japan, but to say that the whole country is backward, like one of the posts that was deleted did, is disingenuous at best.

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Good on him!

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Agree Sydenham. I think Japan does very well - the best I've seen - for those with disabilities. What I don't understand is why "foreigners" need to be stated when refering to the population though.

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All I got to say is thank god for the ADA here in the US. My wife and I just had our first baby and I can only imagine how life would be like if the ADA didn't exist. I can go to a store and know that there will be a ramp to go down if there are stairs where as Japan, I gotta search for the elevator and can't count on ramps like I do here. Of course, here in the US we got a lot of space compared to Japan but that isn't an excuse to ignore people with disabilities and people needing ramps and no step buses.

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I think Japan has a problem with lack of laws and I think this is also a good example of this. May I encourage Mr. Nakazawa on this respect? His Company is aimed at something very respectable (make other businesses aware about the needs of the disabled persons) but maybe they could also aim at the lawmakers, to let them consider this barrier problem more deeply. I think new buildings, stations, and streets should include "by law" escalators for wheelchairs, etc. Another suggestion would be to make some "campaign" in TV to let the general public be aware about the problems, with some messages between the commercial breaks, for example. To "talk more" about it, in TV programs, inviting disabled people to talk about their experiences...

I wish Mr. Nakazawa's Company the best results in his efforts.

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The problem in many places is that, even with a set of laws such as the ADA provides, it is impossible to "grandfather in" and/or retrofit every old building or facility out there. New York walk-up brownstones don't get elevators, and dozens of restaurants in most US cities aren't accessible, either. The difference is, they are required to make the effort, where reasonably possible, and for public facilities, they MUST retrofit for accessibility.

The 'mobility challenged' understand perfectly well that every 1,000-year-old temple and 50-year-old restaurant in town can't be adapted, in many cases it truly is the effort that counts.

In Japan, in general, the lack of laws means that--for the most part--only public transportation, some government-run facilities, and new construction, attempt to provide full access. Many private facilities still refuse wheelchair users even if the facility is technically barrier-free, on grounds of inconvenience, hygiene, or whatever other flimsy excuse they can think up (I've seen this happen in so-called "super sento", restaurants, hotels, and apartment buildings). And without specific legislation, they are free to do so.

Hats off to JR, Keihin, and other (Kanto-area) rail lines for getting with the program. Razzberries to the architects of brand new restaurants, stores, and other venues who perversely design their entrances and interiors for looks with absolutely no regard to accessibility.

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people in Japan are getting older: it only makes sense that goods and services would slowly cater in that direction. One way innovation can fight off recession and make people more productive.

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There is no such thing as a barrier-free society.

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As far as in the U.S. in Hawaii, there is no "grandfathering" for retro fitting for ADA. There's this one lawyer there that goes around looking for violations and sues to get the retrofit. The courts there alway find for ADA access. And for the lawyer he always is getting his fees and a good living in the process.

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