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Nami's Perspective

Illust by Junko Suzuki
Prop Station, a Nonprofit Social Welfare
Organization Supporting the Challenged.

Quoted from
IHT-The Asahi Shimbun
Saturday-Sunday, July 19-20, 2003


Create a society supported by the challenged


POINT OF VIEW/ Nami Takenaka:


I visited Washington in early June at the invitation of Dinah Cohen, director for the U.S. Department of Defense's ``Computer/ Electronic Accommodations Program'' (CAP). I met Cohen in 1999 at an international conference on telecommuting in Seattle, where she served as a lecturer at a subcommittee on ``Telework of the Challenged.''

CAP is an organization that provides vocational training and job guidance for people with serious disabilities to help them land jobs with the government and private businesses using state-of-the-art technology developed for defense purposes. When I visited the CAP office, I saw various computer software and equipment designed for the challenged, or people with disabilities, including a real-time system that displays spoken words on a computer screen for hearing-impaired people.

The Pentagon was a target of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In addition to those killed, many employees suffered serious physical and psychological injuries. Thanks to CAP programs, I heard that they are gradually returning to work.

According to Cohen, in addition to providing compensation, it is the policy of the U.S. government to guarantee people with disabilities the opportunity to return to work. The first step in national defense is to provide an environment for all people to live with pride, said Cohen, who is fighting an intractable disease herself.

The purpose of my U.S. visit in June was to attend as an observer an inter-department meeting to study disabled policy based on the ``New Freedom Initiative'' advocated by President George W. Bush.

I was surprised that of the 25 bureaucrats who took part in the meeting, about half were women and seven had disabilities, including two blind individuals and one hearing-impaired person assisted by a sign language interpreter.

Furthermore, I was told that five more people with disabilities were initially scheduled to attend the meeting but were represented by others because they had to attend other meetings.

In the United States, the law clearly spells out that the government itself must set an example for businesses to hire the challenged.

I was told that 7 percent of all U.S. government employees have disabilities in some way.

I found it very encouraging that the ``New Freedom Initiative'' cites equal educational opportunities for all children as a top priority.

I was also told that at George Washington University, 7 percent of all students have disabilities. The national average is 3 percent and the United States is trying to raise that ratio to 10 percent, which is close to the demographic ratio of challenged individuals.

Meanwhile, in Japan, I heard that only about 0.09 percent of university students are challenged. This is not because the Japanese with disabilities are inferior to their American counterparts.

The gap is a result of differences in educational systems and the awareness of the people: The Japanese tend to feel sorry for the challenged rather than encourage and expect them to do well.

Once again, I felt that the first step in tearing down the barrier that prevents challenged people from social advancement is education reform.

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect at Microsoft Corp., is a powerful supporter of the activities of Prop Station, the Kobe-based nonprofit organization I represent. Prop Station encourages self-reliance for the challenged with the help of computers. Whenever Prop holds a computer seminar, Microsoft provides it with the latest software. The company also hired a number of people with serious disabilities after Prop provided references.

Through such exchanges, I had the opportunity to interview Gates when he visited Japan in February. Gates, who says computers awaken people to possibilities they never knew they had, said computers can provide breakthrough opportunities for people with disabilities to advance in society.

For that, he said Microsoft is developing not only computer software but also equipment to make computers more friendly to people with disabilities such as ``computer voice'' systems for the visually impaired and keyboards that can be operated with one hand.

Gates said that it is the duty of people in the computer industry to make computers useful for the challenged and called on them to get together to create a barrier-free society. His words were very inspiring.

A message that Gates once gave us said that facilities and regulations designed for the disabled also often benefit other people. For example, slopes designed for wheelchair users also make passage easier for people who use baby carriages or bicycles. Promotion of social advancement of the challenged also encourages the advancement of senior citizens and women in society. I was happy and encouraged to know that Gates stands by a philosophy to create a barrier-free society that is friendly to all.

What's more, this thinking is not Gates' alone. The United States established the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which also requires businesses to develop products that can be easily used by the challenged.

During my visit to Washington, I met John Kemp, president and chief executive officer of HalfthePlanet Foundation, who played a major role in promoting the enactment of ADA. Kemp, who lost his hands and legs as a child, is an active lawyer who uses artificial limbs to get around. At the same time, he is also a volunteer leader who proposes policies for the disabled to the government. The soft-spoken manner with which he stressed the need for people with disabilities to be responsible members who support society made a deep impression on me.

Incidentally, while in Washington, some of the restaurants I visited were handing small plastic plates to waiting customers. I was also given one. When it was my turn to be served, it flashed and vibrated. It struck me as a good idea that could also be used at banks and hospitals.

* * *

The author is chairperson of Prop Station, a Kobe-based social welfare corporation. She contributed this comment to The Asahi Shimbun.(IHT/Asahi: July 19,2003)


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