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What can we learn from the Paralympics?

Tokyo prepares for 2020 Paralympics

Tokyo is soon to host the 2020 Paralympics, running from the 25th August to 6th September. Just six months away, this major international multi-sport event celebrates the diversity and accomplishments of disabled athletes across the world, but with rising concerns over accessibility around the bustling city, we’re left wondering whether Tokyo is really the right place for an event focused on the inclusion of people with disabilities.

The Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee are working with relevant government bodies and organisations, to develop a set of guidelines, approved by the International Paralympic Committee, to help people with disabilities access the games and feel safe and included during the events.

The team organising the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo have also put together a handbook to assist all staff at the Games in their responsibility to maintain an accessible and inclusive event. The guide contains instructions on everything from basic accessibility support to specific directions for helping people with mobility, visual and hearing impairments – as well as advice on helping those with mental or neurological disabilities.

Concerns over accessibility in Tokyo

While it’s reassuring to hear that progress is being made in ensuring people with disabilities feel welcome and included, will this attitude towards accessibility for people with disabilities continue? Historically, our treatment of disabled people in wider society does not keep up with the games. With the Paralympics happening only every four years, will interest in improving the lives of disabled people drop after the final medals have been appointed and everyone goes home?

Japanese-born three-time Paralympian and celebrated ice sledge hockey player, Uehara Daisuke, voiced his approval of the inclusive approach to organising the Tokyo Paralympics but said there was much more to be done to improve living, commuting and accessing services as a person with disabilities.

Commuting around Tokyo in a wheelchair

Disabled people from Tokyo, and those with plans to visit to watch the Games, have plenty to consider when making their travel plans – where to eat, where to stay and how to get about in this lively city.

When it comes to public transport in Tokyo, their subway service is arguably better that what we have in the UK. With 90% of buses and trains being wheelchair accessible, compared to our less-than-adequate rail services, wheelchair users can travel the city with relative ease – depending on time of day and how busy the services get.

Subway staff are on hand to lower ramps, help disabled passengers enter the train as and when required, and arrangements are made for a member of staff to greet and assist the passenger when they arrive at their destination. While a similar service is available in the UK, passengers need to arrange for this assistance in advance themselves.

Accessible taxis – a service more readily available in the UK’s major cities – have been met with mixed reviews in Tokyo. At first glance, the new taxi model from Toyota Motor seems a dream come true for wheelchair users who want to travel in comfort. The five-seater cab benefits from a large sliding door and folding seats making it fully wheelchair accessible. Yet, the universal design suffers from a fundamental flaw – it can take up to twenty minutes for a disabled passenger to board. Hopefully, as the focus on accessibility continues, further developments will be made to simplify and improve public transport for disabled people.

Hospitality in Tokyo lacking inclusivity

Only 0.4% of hotel rooms in Japan are accessible, making finding local accommodation tricky – whether you’re visiting for the sights and culture, travelling for business or attending the Games. To make the process of finding accommodation more frustrating, according to AccessibleJapan, when hotels do include information about accessible rooms, it’s only on the Japanese version of their websites.

Another regular frustration for disabled people visiting Tokyo is the lack of step-free access to cafés and restaurants. Traditionally, restaurants in Japan will have a step at the entrance to make a more prominent divide between the outside and the inside of the building. This can be a big barrier for people with disabilities as many of these buildings don’t have an alternative entrance with a ramp.

Tokyo has a long way to go, but the issues disabled people face in Japan are often the same issues wheelchair users face on a daily basis across the world. Improving accessibility takes time, and while more could be done to immediately improve some entrances, stations and methods of public transport in Japan and across the globe, more drastic changes will take time.

Tokyo’s opportunity to improve accessibility

Perhaps hosting the Paralympics 2020 will offer the Japanese government a valuable insight into the life of people with disabilities and give the country an opportunity to learn how different countries adapt to the accessibility needs of their disabled citizens. After all, international events such as these are designed to bring us together and share in our successes – and come with the side effect of putting the location under a spotlight.

As we strive to achieve a fully inclusive and accessible world, we need to maintain the growing focus on these elements in building and developments – so that one day, no matter where the Paralympics is hosted, everyone feels invited.

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