Paralympic pressure: Progress doubted on barrier-free access push

Japan is accelerating efforts to improve access to accommodations and transport for the Paralympics, but people with disabilities are questioning whether enough is being done.

While the games are being touted as a chance to create a more inclusive society, 66 percent of respondents to a recent survey say they haven’t seen any improvement in access or understanding of disabilities since 2013, when Tokyo won the hosting rights. In comparison, 34 percent said they had noticed some progress.

The survey, which covered people with disabilities across the country, was conducted between June and July last year by Kyodo News and the Japan Disability Forum and the Nationwide Support Center for Students with Disabilities. A total of 564 people responded.

Another survey, conducted between June and August, found that 98 of 175 responding athletes aiming for the Tokyo Games still think access at public facilities and transportation systems needs to be improved.

“There aren’t many hotels with barrier-free access,” said Kimie Bessho, a 71-year-old table tennis player.

The revised enforcement order for “barrier-free” access took effect last September. New or renovated hotels and inns with floor space of at least 2,000 sq. meters and 50 guest rooms or more must make at least 1 percent of their rooms accessible to wheelchair users.

“We enacted the country’s first ordinance of its kind, which makes hotel guest rooms barrier-free,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said in a recent interview, adding that she hopes improved accessibility will contribute to “sellout crowds” during the Paralympics.

In Tokyo, work to increase the capacity of venues, ease congestion and improve accessibility for wheelchair users is picking up pace.

Such efforts are already in full swing at train and subway stations around the National Stadium, the main venue for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

At JR Sendagaya Station in Shibuya Ward, close to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, construction was underway on a new platform with improved access. It is part of a new station building with more elevators that is expected to open this spring.

At Tatsumi Station in Koto Ward, close to the swimming venues, a new elevator that can carry 20 people at once is already in operation.

According to Tokyo Metro Co., nine stations including Tatsumi are to scheduled to undergo improvements or get new elevators for the games.

“We have further accelerated our barrier-free initiative at stations ever since Tokyo was selected as the host city,” said Kazunori Wakita, who is in charge of related measures at the subway company.

The installation rate for platform doors at Tokyo Metro stations is scheduled to rise by 30 percent from the end of fiscal 2013, when Tokyo was designated the host city. The railway hopes the improved access will become a legacy of the games.

Last year brought greater recognition of disabilities and accessibility when two lawmakers with severe physical disabilities became Diet members during the House of Councilors election in July.

New Upper House member Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, told the Diet how people with disabilities often struggle to get along in daily life because of limited access.

“We will not be able to ride the shinkansen at short notice in cases of emergency, such as the death of a family member,” she explained.

“This effectively violates orders and guidelines based on the barrier-free transportation law,” she said, calling for expanding the designated bullet train spaces for electric wheelchairs, which are larger than conventional wheelchairs.

Kimura, who uses an electric wheelchair, rode a bullet train between Tokyo and Shinagawa stations in December to inspect the designated spaces.

Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) will introduce the N700S, a new model with a space large enough to accommodate two wheelchairs, on the Tokaido bullet train line in July. The current model, the N700A, comes with a designated space for only one wheelchair, and wheelchair users often sit in regular seats in the trains.

Along with improvements in infrastructure access, efforts to deepen public understanding of disabilities through education are underway nationwide.

According to the June-July survey, 36 percent of the respondents had recently been subject to verbal or other forms of discrimination because of their disabilities. Some said the development of an inclusive education system, in which people with and without disabilities study together, is crucial.

Monika Seryu, a Japanese canoeist aiming to make the podium at the Tokyo Games, emphasized that it was important to promote the barrier-free mentality throughout society, noting that infrastructure access is only part of the equation.

“I take part in the physical education class at my university with able-bodied students, many of whom aspire to be teachers. Because of my participation, others can learn what kind of arrangements should be made to accept students in wheelchairs,” she said in an interview.

To seize this opportunity and bring about opportunities with greater inclusion, efforts must continue beyond the 2020 Games, Seryu suggested.

The Paralympics will open on Aug. 25 and end on Sept. 6.

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