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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)