Lessons learned from Japan’s approach to accessibility at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games have implications not only for the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympics, but for organizations throughout the world, say an expert on disability policy at the University of Tokyo and a Paralympic gold medalist from North Carolina.
Mark Bookman, now a post-doctoral fellow in Tokyo, and Hannah Aspden of Raleigh, a two-time gold medalist in swimming at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, described some of these new opportunities in a June 1 presentation organized by the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON).
Japan’s preparation for the games and the country’s management of accessibility reforms set new standards for best practices in inclusion, Aspden and Bookman said, providing models, solutions, and questions that can be leveraged and examined globally.
“When the games end, how do we keep the pressure going? How do we sustain the moment?,” asked Bookman, speaking in an online forum of American and Japanese participants from higher education, government, non-profit organizations, sports, and business. “Volunteer organizations that were active during the games are doing their best to reflect on the lessons learned, and now to engage policymakers in working upon them. That pressure is there.”
Aspden, who is now training for Paris, wants to see Japan’s example repeated.
“It’s not just people confined to wheelchairs, it’s not just people with disabilities, there are pregnant women, the elderly, there are a lot of people who could benefit from more accessible features,” Aspden said. “Japan did an incredible, incredible job of accommodating for all of those different groups of people … and I would love to see more of that moving forward.”
The Volunteers of Japan
Aspden, who was born without her left leg, said swimming provided an environment in which her disability didn’t hold her back. She started competition when she was 5. At the age of 16, at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, Aspden became the youngest athlete from the U.S. Olympic or Paralympic teams to medal, winning bronze in backstroke and the medley relay.
In Tokyo, Aspden said she saw how the Paralympic movement could change perceptions of people with disabilities, and explained how similar events can make an impact on communities. Well-trained volunteers greeted Paralympic athletes at the Tokyo airport, she said. Bus drivers wished them luck, and cafeteria personnel gave them hand-made origami and artwork. She praised the poolside volunteers who treated the braces, crutches, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs and other adaptive equipment of athletes with deep respect. These volunteers filled an emotional void left when family members and spectators were not allowed at the COVID-impacted Tokyo games, she said.
“Representation is important on all levels, and I’ve seen from personal experience how
representation in sports empowers individuals in all areas of life,” Aspden said. “I’ve seen the difference that diversity, equity, and inclusion can make in our own communities and around the world.”
The new National Stadium in Tokyo was designed with input from people with disabilities, older people, and people raising children. The stadium included studded paving blocks to help those with visual impairments, five types of multifunctional restrooms, 500 seats for people in wheelchairs, and a “calm down, cool down room” to help people who have intellectual and mental disabilities to relax.
On typical buses, Aspden said, there might be a couple of spaces for wheelchairs, but Tokyo supplied fully dedicated buses for people in wheelchairs.
“I remember seeing people standing alongside the road on our bus route to and from the venues, holding up signs that said things like, ‘all Paralympians are my heroes,’ she said.
‘Hard’ Changes in the Environment and ‘Soft’ Changes in Education
Bookman, who serves as an accessibility consultant to the International Paralympic Committee and to the United Nations, summarized the history of disability policy and reforms in Japan, and the reforms leading up to the games.
The Japanese government passed laws on universal access to transportation in 2000, and on barrier-free features in hospitals, parks, community centers and other common spaces in 2006. In the March 11, 2011, triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan, many disabled people could not evacuate their homes, Bookman said. Emergency shelters and makeshift housing units were rarely equipped with barrier-free toilets, handrails and other accommodations, and he said disabled people accounted for 25% of all deaths linked to the disaster.
The disaster created awareness that led to a 2013 Japanese law on the elimination of discrimination against people with disabilities, and to the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014. Building on these reforms, Bookman explained, Japan’s winning bid to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games created a practical vehicle to implement reforms.
Bookman described these as “hard” changes in the built environment and “soft” educational projects. Hard changes included renovation of public transportation facilities, hotels, and tourist sites to include barrier-free features. The new National Stadium, for example, included more than 500 wheelchair-accessible seats, tactile pavement to guide disabled individuals, and five types of modified bathrooms, signaling that similar projects could be undertaken elsewhere.
Soft projects included the work of activists, organizations and volunteers who set up training seminars to explain priority evacuation procedures and many other issues, Bookman said. These hard and soft reforms shifted attitudes in businesses and the public sector. Some business leaders began describing disabled persons as untapped labor forces, he said, and in 2019, two disabled people were elected to Japan’s National Diet.
And despite these reforms, many issues remained, Bookman said. Despite significant renovation programs, the hotel industry was not able to refit even 1% of rooms before the games.
The Future, in Paris and Globally
In Paris, Aspden and Bookman said, organizers can build on the innovations and reforms, engaging communities before the games in conversations about accessibility. Online tools such as Accessible-Japan.com can be built to document and analyze the experiences of disabled spectators, volunteers, organizers, and athletes. Data collected can then be used not only to strengthen accessibility in France, but leveraged and exported for long-term, global use in education, tourism, business, government, and other fields.
“The reality is that we all need support,” Bookman said. “One size fits one. We all have our own needs to be able to go forward. Just because we built the community in a way that helps some people some of the time doesn’t mean we can’t reimagine it to help more people most of the time.”
Shannon McGuire is a 2021 graduate of the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of community news.
For a recording of the entire CULCON June 1 webinar, go to our YouTube Channel here: : https://youtu.be/IL4dxMCam3Y