From the Netherlands to Japan: Efforts to Foster Inclusivity Through Sports; Rita van Driel Brings Expertise to Facilities in Adachi Ward, Tokyo

The Japan News
Rita van Driel visits a support facility for people with mental disabilities in Adachi, Tokyo, on March 14.

An initiative from the Netherlands to promote an inclusive society where people with and without disabilities engage with each other through sports is beginning to penetrate Japanese society. This Olympic year, Adachi Ward has invited experts from the Netherlands to hold parasports workshops jointly with support facilities in the ward to promote social participation for people with disabilities.

On March 14, Rita van Driel, a former director of the International Paralympic Committee, visited a support facility for people with mental disabilities in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, and met with participants of a social rehabilitation program. When one of the participants said, “I’ve been doing cardio exercise lately to improve my fitness and lose weight,” Van Driel responded, “That’s great! You know what you need to do for yourself now.”

According to Van Driel, in the Netherlands, when people are forced to take a leave of absence due to mental health problems, they commonly take up sports as their first step toward reintegrating into society. It is believed that improving their skills and achieving goals in sports will boost their confidence and help them prepare to return to society.

The facility in Adachi Ward helps people with mental disabilities prepare for social participation through training in simple tasks and computers classes and provides job placement services. It continues to increase its sports-related activities, such as by offering yoga and table tennis programs and holding parasports experiences such as boccia and korfball. A representative of the facility said, “While there are normally a few opportunities to engage in sports, at this event, we saw lively expressions on the everyone’s faces, which we don’t see in their usual activities.”

Game Changer Project

Adachi Ward’s efforts in promoting parasports are based on the Game Changer Project, a framework for cooperation between the Olympic and Paralympic Committees of the Netherlands and the Japan Sports Council. The project is an effort to gain advice from the Netherlands, which has long been involved in efforts to interact with people with disabilities through sports, and to obtain pointers on creating a social system that facilitates participation by people with disabilities.

The ward has invited Van Driel to the district several times to receive advice on how to manage sporting events and to learn about other sports in which people with disabilities can participate. It also invited Dutch Paralympic medalists and athletes to hold parasports events for local elementary school students.

According to a ward official, many people with disabilities cannot start playing sports even if they want to because they do not know what kinds of activities are available and where or whether people with disabilities are allowed to participate.

To resolve this problem, Adachi Ward established a “sports concierge” service at the ward office in 2020. A ward representative will consult with people with disabilities on what sports they are suited for and provide them with information on active suitable organizations in the ward. “This service is unprecedented in Japan, and we were able to create it thanks to Van Driel’s advice,” Tadayuki Hashimoto of the Adachi Ward’s sports promotion division said.

This year, officials began hearing from communities in each part of the ward and from sports teams comprising people with disabilities about the issues they are facing. The ward will formulate an action plan to revitalize parasports based on their opinions.

‘Small tweaks can change society’

Van Driel says, “A small change in the rules or just a few tweaks will get more people into the game. The same goes for society.”

For example, Van Driel saw a boy with no arms standing in line at the volleyball experience area during a sports event in Tokyo a few years ago. While staff were at a loss as to what to do, she invited him onto the court, lowered the height of the net, and changed the ball to one that was bouncier than a regular volleyball. That way, if the boy received the ball with his shoulder or head, it would bounce better and more easily enter the opponent’s court. “We can be creative by thinking about how to adopt for people with disabilities,” Van Driel says.

Van Driel herself had a “game-changing” experience about 30 years ago while working for the Dutch Ski Federation. She learned to be creative while responding to a request from blind cross-country skiers who asked to compete in the Paralympics. That experience led her to engage in her current activities.

Van Driel says that she has sometimes felt frustrated in her past activities in Japan by the tendency of Japanese people to be too considerate of others and to hesitate even to speak to people with disabilities. Throughout her activities in Japan, Van Driel has repeatedly urged people to actively ask questions in order first to learn about the needs of people with disabilities and then to think about what they can do to meet those needs.

As for the results of her work in Adachi Ward, Van Driel feels that “they are really thinking about how to use sport more for persons with disabilities.” Initially, her interactions were only with the sports-related divisions of the ward office, but now the welfare and education departments also participate in meetings with her to discuss what their divisions can do. “I look forward to see what is going on in Japan,” she said.