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In the latest example of accessibility issues facing disabled athletes, Team GB has been asked by hotels in Tokyo to pay to make rooms accessible for wheelchair athletes. As the government and the businesses involved delay making essential adaptations to the city, it seems that the 2020 Paralympics is likely to be inaccessible to the very athletes it is for. This reluctance to adapt sits outside of the official remit of the organising committee, meaning it is unlikely that these issues will be resolved in a way that ensures access for all.

Looking at the physical and political landscapes, it is clear that - while progress has been made in Japan in recent years regarding disability rights and access - there is still a long way to go. In 2016, the government introduced legislation making “unjust discrimination” against people with disabilities - such as refusing to serve people with disabilities and having signs saying “no people with disabilities” - illegal, whilst also implementing that hotels with more than 100 rooms are now required to make at least 1% of their rooms wheelchair accessible. Companies over a certain size face a fine if they don’t meet hiring quotas for disabled people. There has also been progress in the built environment: Train stations have lifts as well as stairs and buses kneel to allow for step-free access; most modern buildings now have step-free access.

The torrent of negative press forces Japan to acknowledge the issues at hand rather than continuing to ignore them.

Clearly, progress (albeit slow) is being made in Tokyo. It is now possible to move around the city as a disabled person - but it is challenging and often complicated. Accessibility is about ensuring that everyone has access to the same experiences, and the current situation in Tokyo does not meet this criteria. Many businesses are using the weak language of new legislation to get out of providing accommodations. Older buildings and hotels are refusing to renovate, or - as Team GB have experienced - pushing the costs onto those who need them.

Despite this progress, however, serious issues remain. For example, in order to board a train in a wheelchair, an attendant has to place a ramp between the train and the platform and then call ahead to the station they’re getting off at to notify them that a ramp is required. Long distance trains and many tube stations in the UK and London also operate this way - but many stations have been retrofitted with a raised segment of the platform to allow for step free access and newly built stations are step-free. However, the absence of any step-free stations across the Tokyo metro system means that there will undoubtedly be difficulties when the Olympic and Paralympic crowds arrive. These areas cannot truly be considered accessible when a person with disabilities is unable to move through it with as much ease as a person without disabilities.

There is a well-documented stigma against people with disabilities in Japan, and the practice of institutionalising people with disabilities is common. Traditionally, people with disabilities have been hidden away from society by ashamed family members. For example, a current lecturer at a Tokyo University who has cerebral palsy recalls how her mother was expected to keep her at home throughout her childhood and how she had to fight to keep her in school. The recent 2016 Sagamihara massacre was rooted in ableism - and yet Japanese media didn’t respond. In fact, no names of victims were broadcast on the media - their stories were left untold, and the stigma around disabilities continued.

The organisers of the Games need to insist on change and provide support to athletes rather than condemning them to unsuitable facilities.

The Paralympics promises to ameliorate these issues. At the least, society will be exposed to a high-profile event celebrating the accomplishments of people with disabilities. The Japanese wheelchair rugby team, for example, are currently well-poised to receive a medal and will capture the attention of the public. Then again, these displays of incredible skill and talent run the risk of being fetishized and turned into ‘inspiration porn’ by mainstream media, which is a very small step from the objectification of people with disabilities.

The torrent of negative press surrounding accessibility issues in Tokyo is both justified and necessary, and the resulting discussion forces Japanese society to acknowledge the issues at hand rather than continuing to ignore them. These issues are not unique to Tokyo. Here, in Cambridge, students are repeatedly unable to access facilities due to infrastructure issues like narrow door frames, a lack of step-free routes, and a lack of clear information regarding accessibility of university and college property. However, holding the Paralympics in Tokyo provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the city’s current lack of accessibility. In order to harness the power of this opportunity, the organisers of the Games need to insist on change and provide support to athletes rather than condemning them to unsuitable facilities. By idly sitting by and claiming it’s not their job to deal with these serious issues, the organisers are undermining the work and erasing the experiences of disabled athletes, coaches, journalists, and spectators.

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