Facing the COVID-19 Crisis in Japan With a Disability*


Mark Bookman and Michael Gillan Peckitt

Michael [The Limping Philosopher]: I am an academic living in Kobe and I work at Osaka University. I have cerebral palsy and, while I can get around with the aid of a walking stick, I have very little movement in the left side of my body.

My disability also requires me to go to a hospital every three months to pick up medication and, since this whole coronavirus panic kicked off, I am worried that public transport could be suspended if there’s some sort of lockdown. That would eventually leave me without the medication I need to stay in good health.

Mark: I am a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo. I take immunosuppressive medications daily and use an electric wheelchair to get around the streets of the capital.

I am about to finish a doctoral dissertation on the history of disability policy and related social movements in Japan. I believe this country has become increasingly accessible for those with disabilities over the past 20 years, but there’s still a lot of work that remains to be done. If I can try to find a silver lining in all of this, I think the outbreak of COVID-19 presents an opportunity to make progress on some of that work.

Michael, I am sure that the coronavirus crisis has affected your life in numerous ways, but what do you think are some of the core issues tied to the virus’ emergence for people with disabilities in Japan?

Michael: For me, the COVID-19 crisis has begun to create an environment for people with disabilities in which the problems and challenges they are used to facing every day have been magnified and made more extreme. The issues are really all the same, such as those surrounding access to transport and health care, but they are made worse by the possible threat of having to self-isolate — a situation that, while we are having this conversation, will be a reality in Tokyo this coming weekend. We may be able to get through this light two-day lockdown, but who knows how we’ll fare over lengthier amounts of time as the items and services we depend on for survival become scarce.

Mark: I completely agree. COVID-19 has changed the way that people with disabilities in Japan approach common barriers to education, employment and communication. For example, some people have used the troubled implementation of telework to build on ongoing conversations about accessibility and promote a more equitable environment for persons with disabilities in local and national contexts.

Just as important is the fact that people without disabilities are hopefully now able to better understand what it’s like to be denied access to certain sectors of society. As schools and shops are closed off, nondisabled people can recognize how lack of access to education and entertainment can create ripple effects and shape other aspects of everyday life in unpredictable and frustrating ways. I hope that their recognition will allow for collective problem-solving.

Indeed, there’s a lot that nondisabled people can learn from us regarding challenges associated with access to the items and services you need to survive, which you mentioned. Let’s talk about those more in detail.

Michael: Travel is always a concern for me. I can walk, but I am still a 15-minute bus ride and at least another 10-minute train journey from a city center. I often have to decide not to get on specific buses and trains because, if my physical condition is particularly bad on a given day, I will not be able to get a seat and I will most definitely fall down during the commute.

Ultimately, however, if the buses and trains stop altogether, I won’t be able to do my shopping, and that will become a big problem if the company that delivers my groceries needs to stop due to a lockdown or if its staff becomes sick.

Mark: I know how you feel. My wheelchair is quite big and I have trouble navigating the tight spaces in many Japanese stores on a good day. It’s almost impossible now with all of the panic-buying taking place due to fears of a coronavirus lockdown. Unfortunately, I live in an area without delivery services, so I’ve asked friends to shop for me. I think a more streamlined and readily available delivery service might help a lot of people — not just disabled people, but also the elderly, parents with children in need of supervision, and others who might not be able to go outside.

Michael: How about the areas of education and employment, Mark? We’re both academics and while I know we represent just a sliver of The Japan Times’ readership, have you noticed any impacts in these fields?

Mark: When it comes to my own situation, I can definitely say that the pandemic has affected my access to libraries and educational meet-ups, which may be an inconvenience to some but as a Ph.D. candidate these places are pretty important.

More broadly, though, the school closures hit me hard because many of my caregivers have young children and they needed to take off time off work to care for them. That’s a challenge that will affect more than just academics. Many disabled students are also having to stay home and, if their parents are unable to get time off, that proves quite problematic. How does the situation look from your perspective?

Michael: The COVID-19 situation is one that academia in Japan hasn’t faced before and it’s difficult to guess how I, as a teacher, will cope. Part of me is concerned that there have not been many conversations surrounding the use of teleconferencing to teach at universities, at least not with me at my university.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to lead a seminar of some 30 students using teleconferencing technology as the students are meant to speak during class. I’ve also been wondering if I were to have a disabled student in my class who had access issues — whether those access issues are technological in nature, like they need to use a specific app or service, or physical in nature, maybe they needed to self-isolate — would the inability to offer a remote-education solution constitute a violation of Japan’s Law for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities, which was implemented in 2016?

Mark: Remote education is a great example of something that could potentially help or harm a person based on disability, though. For a wheelchair user in a hospital, it could be a powerful tool. And it’s similar to other methods of telework that are being pushed at the moment. In Japan, people with disabilities have been fighting for the ability to telework for some time, with many studies citing them as an “untapped labor force.” With the government urging the Japanese workforce to operate this way, managers and supervisors are going to have to grapple with any concerns they have with telework. Once they see that some of their concerns have easy solutions, they may be more likely to employ people whose situations are such that they must telework.

It’s important to qualify this, though, with the fact that remote education and teleworking could be exclusionary if not set up correctly.

Michael: That’s right. While communication isn’t as much of an issue with my disability, I did teach a student who was deaf and he wasn’t able to participate equally in our class when his fellow students wore face masks. For that reason, I try to ban masks in my classes. Doing that now is even more difficult.

Mark: It’s great for those other students to have that lesson, though. It helps them better understand and hopefully empathize with people in situations that aren’t like theirs. Over time, this way of thinking can become ingrained.

Recently, a group of deaf activists in Hokkaido could not contact a COVID-related consultation center because it didn’t have a fax line, only a phone line. Another group filed a complaint about the use of masks in press conferences, whose use makes it difficult to read lips.

When it comes to my own situation regarding COVID-19, it has really tested the limits of my support networks: groups of academics, welfare experts, disability activists, friends and family. Most information out there is not useful to me because I have a rare disease that affects only six people on the planet. Consultation centers are already overflowing with calls and are not always prepared to deal with people like me who need special accommodation. I have overcome some of my own challenges by using my academic connections to reach out to disability NGOs, but not everyone has that kind of access.

Michael: On that note, where are some places people with disabilities can go to in order to get information that could help them? I would recommend accessible-japan.com and www.japan-accessible.com.

Mark: I agree with those and would add multilingual advocacy organizations like Disabled Persons’ International (DPI) Japan, and a United Nations policy brief on COVID-19.

I think that what this contagion looks likely to teach us is that we can’t act with our own interests in mind alone. We need to act together because if one person is left behind — disabled or otherwise — that could still prove to be a disaster for huge swathes of the population.

Michael: Yes. I’d particularly like any able-bodied readers to take note of your last point. Nobody in this crisis is expendable. Check up on the people around you in a safe manner, your elderly neighbors, friends with disabilities and struggling families. If we can learn to be united in the face of COVID-19, who knows what else we can overcome.

*Reprinted from The Japan Times. You can find the original post of the article here.

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