Nami Takenaka's Prop Station prepares those with disabilities
for computer work.
Around the same time Nami Takenaka received a prestigious annual
award from the telecommunications minister last year, the 54-year-old
single mother got her first paycheck.
For 10 years, on a strictly volunteer basis, she oversaw a
computer network system, training over 1,000 disabled people
to find work in the information-technology field.
``Even people who can't change their own bedsheets or feed
themselves can work, if they want to, using a computer or the
Internet,'' said Takenaka, the director of Prop Station, an Osaka-based,
registered nonprofit organization.
Until last year, when Prop Station became more or less financially
stable, Takenaka was supported by her 30-year-old daughter Maki's
monthly welfare checks. Maki was born with a severe developmental
disorder that dramatically impeded her growth. Takenaka said
that for Maki to reach the mental and physical maturity of an
average 18-year-old, she would have to live 300 years.
In 1991, Takenaka, who was computer illiterate at the time,
opened an IT workshop for the disabled with the help of a few
volunteers. She was guided by one thought: ``When it's time for
me to die, I want to go in peace, knowing I can leave my child
in a society that values people like her.''
In such a society, Takenaka sees people with disabilities working,
paying taxes and filling productive roles. Her slogan for Prop
Station-``making taxpayers out of the challenged''-has recently
received wide publicity in the media.
Takenaka's two books-``Rakki Uman'' (Lucky Woman), published
by Asuka Shinsha in Japanese, and ``Let's Be Proud,'' published
by The Japan Times in English-brim with success stories. A 39-year-old
man paralyzed after suffering a broken neck in a car accident,
who had no previous computer knowledge, becomes a contracted
programmer for firms such as IBM Japan Ltd. and Nomura Research
Institute Ltd. A 19-year-old woman battling spinal muscular atrophy,
who spends her days braced to her wheelchair, is now a graphic
artist, with an impressive array of clients, including Kansai
Electric Power Co. and NTT Co.
Over the years, Takenaka's vision for Prop Station has won
over policymakers and businesspeople around the country, making
it possible for the organization to acquire an Internet domain
and truckloads of computer equipment, and to host an annual international
symposium, the Challenged Japan Forum, for the past seven years.
In 1999, Takenaka won an Avon award for women in education.
An interview taped in February by Takenaka and former home
affairs minister Seiko Noda with Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill
Gates will be shown at this year's Challenged Japan Forum on
Aug. 21 and 22 at Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture.
Takenaka's youthful laughter is contagious, and her no-nonsense
attitude has even rubbed off on bureaucrats, who are notoriously
sluggish when it comes to change. She currently serves on an
advisory board for the prime minister.
``In every government, you've got people who get into public
service for power and you've got people who choose that field
because they want to be useful to Japan. Over the years, the
latter group gets beaten down by the system, but at the core,
they don't change,'' Takenaka said. ``So when someone like me
comes along and presents them with an idea and says, `Look, here's
how you can make a difference,' they are more than willing to
hear you out.''
Takenaka's idea of social activism is not one of marching around
with a picket sign and banging on the doors of the establishment.
``I just go around making friends with those who can open the
door from the inside,'' she says.
In the world of policymakers, where there is a premium on elitism,
Takenaka says the lack of a degree from a big-name university
actually works in her favor.
``When people find out what school you graduated from, there's
always a sense of competition. But if there is at least one person
with no degree, then the conversation about schools stops and
you can actually get some work done,'' says Takenaka, who was
expelled from her Osaka junior high school after she moved in
with her boyfriend at 15. The couple married a year later. But
when Maki, her second child, was born eight years later, the
couple's different opinions about how to raise the child caused
a rift in the relationship, ending with a divorce in 1992.
``I was such a rebel growing up and as an adult, I had a daughter
who did not fit in. So Maki and I had no rules, no precedents
to go by. And that was very liberating. There was no one to tell
me how to raise this child, because no one knew how. We made
the rules ourselves.''
For the first 10 years of Maki's life, Takenaka averaged only
two to three hours of sleep a night, taking care of her daughter
who lacked basic motor control and often suffered seizures. After
Maki began school, Takenaka plunged into the community of people
dealing with physical and mental disabilities, immersing herself
in volunteer activities such as sign-language translation. Now,
she says, it's difficult to treat people with disabilities as
out of the ordinary.
``There is so much my daughter can't do. But if you keep looking
for something beautiful, something good about her, then you'll
find plenty there,'' she said. ``Maki taught me to look at everyone
like that and before you know it, people open up to you.''
With that philosophy on life, Takenaka has gained a devoted
following. Some volunteers, known as ``Prop Station Freaks,''
come to help and never leave. The managing director, Shigeaki
Suzuki, even quit a lucrative job to work for the organization
for half his previous salary.
Some who visit Prop Station even confess they envy Takenaka,
an idea that makes her laugh.
``But now I realize they are tired of living in the system.
They look at me-someone with only a junior high school eduction,
a single mom with a disabled child and no money-bringing people
together and doing all sorts of fun things. Then they look at
themselves and don't like what they see,'' she said.
``People are scared to step out of their roles, but once they
do, they realize it's not that scary.''(IHT/Asahi: June 28,2003)