Support through physical, social elements vital for inclusive society

For people such as those with disabilities and the elderly to go out without anxiety and take part in various activities, it is essential that they can use transportation services and public facilities smoothly. People in need of help should be supported through both physical and social elements.

According to government estimates, 7.6% of the population have some form of disability. People aged 65 or older account for 28.8% of the population, and this ratio is expected to keep increasing in the future. There will definitely be an increased need to eliminate barriers that make moving around difficult, such as steps at train stations and other facilities.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has compiled a new plan to promote a barrier-free initiative. It calls for eliminating steps at stations and bus terminals that are used by more than 2,000 passengers a day while also having tactile paving blocks installed at all such facilities over the next five years.

The plan also calls for increasing the number of platform doors at stations — which are effective in preventing the visually impaired from getting involved in accidents — by 50% from the fiscal 2019 level over the next five years.

The Tokyo metropolitan government has increased the maximum limit on subsidies for making accommodation facilities more accessible in preparation for hosting the Olympics and Paralympics, in addition to the aging population. It is hoped that the public and private sectors will cooperate to continue the initiative, even though the transportation and accommodation industries have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

More than anything, it is important to make facilities easy to use for people such as the disabled and the elderly. The government and businesses should carefully reflect the opinions of these users when making facilities more accessible.

Another issue is how to improve support from others, such as promoting more communication among different people. The law on the barrier-free initiative, which was revised last year, sets as one of its pillars the promotion of “barrier-free mindsets,” so that different people can deepen their mutual understanding and support each other.

This means that the general public is encouraged to reduce the emotional distance between themselves and people such as the disabled, the elderly, foreigners and those with babies and toddlers. It is important to develop the ability to imagine whether they have any difficulty moving around smoothly and getting the information they need.

According to a 2019 survey conducted by the ministry in Tokyo and Osaka Prefecture, more than 80% of respondents said that they should be proactive in speaking to and assisting those apparently in need of help. However, only 50% to 60% said they actually did this.

The main reasons given were that they were not sure if such people actually needed to be talked to or offered assistance, while others said they wondered if extending help would actually cause them to feel bad. How can people naturally help those who are looking for assistance? If people have extensive knowledge of and experience in this issue, it will be easier for them to turn their goodwill into action.

The Japan Braille Library shows how to guide the visually impaired on its website. A campaign is underway for people to wear a “help mark,” which silently lets those around them know that they may need assistance. If every member of society deepens their understanding of the barrier-free initiative, that can help to realize an inclusive society.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 12, 2021.