Prop Station, a welfare organization I run, aims to closely involve all segments of society-business, bureaucratic, political and academic-in the creation of a ``universal society'' that encourages everyone, even the physically and mentally challenged, to live up to their potential and support one another.
I often get asked by people why I say ``universal society'' rather than ``barrier-free society.'' Let me explain. ``Barrier-free'' literally means removing barriers, or obstacles, that inconvenience people with disabilities.
``Universal,'' on the other hand, has a more proactive implication. You not only remove the obstacles, you also go for structural changes that will enable each challenged person to develop his or her potential and participate in community life, even land a job.
In over 10 years from now, half the households in Japan are expected to have someone in need of nursing care. Just going barrier-free won't be enough to generate vitality in our society. Our cities today are not built for people who travel with family or go shopping without assistance. Just imagine what this will mean when every other household has to face this problem on a daily basis. And nor is our society equipped yet to provide chances of gainful employment to not only people with various disabilities, but also to those who give care to those people.
Without a firm vision to create a society where no single member will ever be considered redundant, Japan is going to end up a sorry mess. This is my conviction as a mother blessed with a daughter who is heavily disabled, mentally as well as physically.
I am a regular participant in a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare panel that studies various financial support alternatives for the challenged. Many challenged people and caregivers attend the meetings. But while there are lively exchanges on what amount of care should be deemed necessary, there is hardly any discussion of what policy is needed to enable the challenged to become gainfully employed while receiving nursing care.
People are not meant to live their entire lives passively in someone's care. I say they have every right to choose how they want to live, even though they may be in permanent need of care.
In America, there are employment opportunities for the challenged so they can hire paid help. In Japan, however, it is taxpayers' money that enables the challenged to receive care. Under this system, the issue boils down to how much money the challenged should be allowed to spend for their needs. I must say this sort of thinking hardly reflects any genuine respect for the rights of the challenged.
I believe it's time for Japan to outgrow the traditional notion of welfare, which effectively denies work even to those who want to work, and keeps treating all challenged individuals as poor, helpless people who need protection.
I have many friends who are mentally or emotionally disturbed. For the past two decades, I have had depressives and schizophrenics come to me and unload.
One young man, who went off the deep end while doing a postgraduate course, recently sent me an e-mail. ``Since I got to know you, I've begun to think it's probably time to stop despising myself for my mental problem.''
Absolutely tickled, I responded: ``Most mental patients like yourself are really sensitive and perceptive people. I believe that's why you are easily hurt by things that go on around you. When that happens, your body and soul react in self-defense, triggering what people casually call a `mentally disturbed state.'
``People like me don't get hurt that much, simply because we just happen to be thick-skinned boobs, ha ha ha. Since no two human beings are ever the same, it's perfectly natural for each person to want a different kind of involvement with society or work from anyone else.''
What mentally challenged people really need are ``flexible'' job opportunities that allow them to work only when they can cope physically and mentally. Any standardized job-placement system won't help them at all.
Of course, the same applies to many other people, too-senior citizens who don't want to retire fully yet, people with small kids or family members who need looking after, and recently fired workers in the process of exploring new job alternatives.
For everyone, I believe there are times to labor and support society, just as there are times to be supported by society. However, there are also people like my daughter who will never survive without society's support at all times. It seems perfectly reasonable, then, to create a labor system that is based on the new concept of ``work only when one is in a position to support society.''
I am suggesting a system where two sets of people-those who can work like dogs and those who want to work only in spurts-are allowed to coexist happily and switch places as they wish. I don't think this is just an idle fantasy.
Here's me, a real tough workhorse blessed with a daughter who can never work. That's a reality, and isn't it only right that we humans take it upon ourselves to create a system that takes care of such a human reality?
I wrote in my e-mail to that young man I mentioned earlier: ``It's a grand dream, but don't you agree it's worth pursuing? If you do, your first step is to stop despising yourself. And I could tell from your mail that you have the wisdom to think of taking that first step on your own. You've made my day!''
The Lower House is up for election. I hope with all my heart that every conscientious politician will heed what I am suggesting.
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Nami Takenaka, born in 1948, is director of the Kobe-based Prop Station. She contributed this piece to The Asahi Shimbun.(IHT/Asahi: November 5,2003)