When I was a student at Vanderbilt University many light years ago, I had a Classical Mythology professor, F. Carter Philips, who was an advocate for access for the physically disabled. I never recalled him mentioning anything about it in class, but one day, I saw him in a wheelchair, wheeling himself to the lecture hall. I thought that he had been in an accident, but as it turned out, once a year in Vanderbilt, he encouraged the students to pick up a “disability” and to act like it for an entire day to see how life could be for a person with a disability. I chose to be blind for a day, but nary an hour passed before I chickened out. To be blindfolded, holding a stick, standing in a busy intersection, and attempting to cross the road was way too nerve wracking for me. The exercise had an obvious objective: until we experienced how it was to be in such a condition, we would never be able to understand how frustrating it could be to live with a disability. The exercise also taught us to appreciate what we normally took for granted.
Long before professor Philips, however, my parents had taken us as children to the school for the blinds (my father was an ophthalmologist). Further, my high school (Loyola College Prep in Shreveport, Louisiana) obliged us to complete certain hours of volunteer work, which I chose to do at the Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children. In the 70s, my maternal grandfather was semi-paralyzed from stroke, and decades later, in 1995, my father survived a massive stroke but ended up in a wheelchair. Disability is therefore rather a familiar sight, and I thank my parents, Loyola, and Vanderbilt for further educating me on the subject.
Compared to some other countries, the U.S.A. to me is very accessible for people with disability. Ramps leading to buildings, wider bathrooms in public restrooms, Braille on the elevator buttons, TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) and elevators are things that we tend to take for granted. In Hong Kong and in Japan, I see “guiding mark” on the sidewalks and lobby of certain buildings. These marks are rows of dashes (for straight walks) and rows of dots (for intersections or the beginning of steps). People with visual disability (the blinds) will “walk” their canes along these lines and dots to navigate them around the city. There are chimes or some sound that some traffic lights make to guide the blinds in crossing the roads. Other places in Asia, such as in Indonesia, attempt to accommodate people in wheelchairs by creating ramps, but these ramps are usually too steep (think about a 45-degree ramp) and/or too slick (in Asia, polished tiles are the norm in malls and shopping centers). None of these facilities will have any meaning without an understanding from the general population. In Indonesia, when my father was on a middle level of any shopping center, he had difficulties getting an elevator to go up and/or down; no one would yield to him. If we waited until the elevator came back down, it would be full; by the time it came back up, it was already full again. The elevator attendant, if there was one, most likely did not react to anything except for some pocket money.
In Takashimaya, a huge department store at the heart of Shinjuku, there are elevators designated for people with disabilities, parents with strollers, and seniors. One elevator even has two uniformed attendants, while the other ones are on the honor system. When there are attendants, it becomes much easier because they can bar unqualified people from boarding, but with the other no-attendant handicap elevators, it is a hit and miss.
At one time, when one of these designated elevators opened, it was chock full. This was not the first time that it had happened. Quickly I scanned the elevator and saw that 90% of the occupants were mostly young people who did not seem to need such an elevator. They all just stared at us and at the people with strollers behind us, but not a single person volunteered to get out. I paid no attention and decided to push my father’s wheelchair and take my 72-year old mother and squeezed all of us in that crammed elevator. They were aghast that I would push the wheelchair into such a crowded elevator, but I simply met their disbelieving stares with daggers flying out of my eyes. Still, no one got off, but they can suit themselves. Few floors down, the door opened, and a befuddled woman with a stroller looked disappointed at the crammed elevator. I shot glances at the people around me to get them to understand that someone else more qualified needed the space, but either they were oblivious or they avoided eye contact. Behind the woman, four other sets of parents with strollers frowned.
Clearly no one in Japan wants to offend. On the one hand, the woman and the other parents with the strollers did not raise any voice, not wanting to confront; on the other hand the people in the elevator avoided eye contact and were either oblivious, inconsiderate, or just too ashamed to do anything else. I wanted so much to drive another point by getting out of the elevator and give my space to the woman with the stroller facing me, but as it was, my parents and I had been skipped by several elevators, too. Maybe I, too, was too selfish and inconsiderate.
The week before, in the same department store, we had been waiting for a long time, but when it opened, five healthy-looking ladies got on it and were turned down. The ladies did not budge, and as a result, we were asked to wait. Forget it; I seized the first available regular elevator and went up all right. It was a good thing that the store provided these designated elevators and the attendants, but as I said before, without a general understanding from the population, this would be worthless; even the attendants needed to be sterner.
The Narita Airport has an acceptable wheelchair facilities. Just like it is in most of the international airports in the world, it sends a staff member to aid the handicapped, including a separate lane for immigration and customs.
Tokyo has done some good in providing access to the disabled, but it could do more. The many subway stations still need better access, such as elevators, even platforms or designated ramps for boarding the trains (in some stations, a Metro staff, when alerted, will stand and wait for a train that carries a handicapped person; the staff will then lay down a wooden ramp that bridge the gap from the train to the platform.) Major stations do provide these, like the Tokyo and the Omotesando stations. There have also been many people who had provided help without being asked for; those Good Samaritans do exist. In Roppongi Hills one Saturday, unsolicited, two people rushed to help my partner and me lifting my father’s wheelchair while descending a flight of stairs. At another time, a woman about to cross the road helped hold the door to a taxicab while I was trying to position my father. She missed her cross, but her help was much appreciated. The society does revere the older generation, and the older generation seems not to want to be dependent on the young ones. I am very confident that the people with disability here, just like disabled people elsewhere in the world, would like very much to be independent; however, for that to be realized, much more had to be done, and it can start simply with an understanding and appreciation from the people around them.