The Long Road to Disability Rights in Japan

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In January 2014, Japan became the 140th country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. What are the implications for Japanese society and its efforts to eliminate discrimination?

On January 20, 2014, the government of Japan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a step many advocates considered long overdue. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 and brought into force in May 2008, the CRPD bans all forms of discrimination on the basis of disability and requires the parties to the treaty to provide necessary accommodation to persons with disabilities. Although Japan signed the CRPD in September 2007, it spent more than six years subsequently laying the legal groundwork for ratification—even as South Korea, China, and dozens of other countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe officially joined the convention. Only after amending the Basic Act for Persons with Disabilities and passing the Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities was Japan ready to become the 140th country to ratify the CRPD.

This qualifies as a giant leap for Japan. Yet media coverage has been sparse. The general public remains largely ignorant of the meaning of “prohibition of discrimination” under the CRPD and unaware of the kind of hurdles to participation the disabled face even today. In the following, I offer an overview of the convention and discuss what additional steps Japan must take to eliminate discrimination against these individuals.

Denial of Accommodation is Discrimination

The most significant aspect of the CRPD from the standpoint of its potential impact on our lives is the fact that it treats “denial of reasonable accommodation” as a form of discrimination.

Reasonable accommodation refers to adaptations and modifications to guarantee opportunities for participation and access to services that persons with disabilities would otherwise be denied owing to their disability. Section 2 of the CRPD defines the concept as follows:

“Reasonable accommodation” means necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Examples include arranging for sign language interpreters at local lectures, adding audio commentary to television shows and movies, and installing ramps at the entrances to department stores and restaurants. Failure to make such accommodations is considered discrimination under the convention. Look around you and you will see that there are still countless instances in which individuals with disabilities are unable to take part in our society on an equal basis.

Improving Support on University Campuses

As someone who has spent many years supporting higher education for people with disabilities, I am keenly aware of the barriers such students face on campus. Deaf and hard of hearing students have no way to hear emergency alarms or announcements made over the loud speaker system, not to mention the content of classroom lectures and discussions. Blind students often have no access to the content of textbooks and other printed materials and have difficulty commuting and moving between classrooms. The campus is home to students with a wide range of disabilities, from orthopedic impairments that may confine them to wheelchairs to developmental and internal disorders, and each of these students has a different set of needs.

Japan’s ratification of the CRPD means that henceforth schools will be expected to provide reasonable accommodation based on individual needs, including sign language interpreters or text transcribers for the Deaf or hard of hearing and transcription of materials into Braille or audio format for the blind or visually impaired. The CRPD is significant because it goes beyond idealistic rhetoric and mandates concrete action, stipulating that parties must “take all appropriate steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided.”

Japan's Efforts to Date

What actions has the Japanese government taken thus far to promote the principle of reasonable accommodation?

When the Basic Act for Persons with Disabilities was amended in August 2011, a provision was added stating that “necessary and reasonable accommodation shall be made” to remove social barriers (Article 4, paragraph 2). Although the wording is somewhat vague, a provision for reasonable accommodation—the core concept of the CRPD—made its way into domestic law for the first time.

This was followed in June 2013 by passage of the Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities. Article 7, paragraph 2, of this law stipulates that “administrative organs, etc., . . . shall make necessary and reasonable accommodation for the removal of social barriers.” Private entities, meanwhile, must “endeavor to make necessary and reasonable accommodation for the removal of social barriers” (Article 8, paragraph 2).

Meanwhile, separate provisions in the Act on Employment Promotion etc. of Persons with Disabilities explicitly require private businesses to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities. Under this law, business owners “must make necessary improvements to facilities, assign assistance providers, and take any other necessary measures” to “ensure treatment equal to that of nondisabled workers.”

Both laws are scheduled to come into force on April 1, 2016. Hopes are high that this will bring major changes to the lives of persons with disabilities in Japan, who have hitherto been denied many of the accommodations they sought. But even now, less than two years before the effective date of the legislation, the Japanese public is largely ignorant of its existence. Measures to familiarize the public with the laws’ gist and the changes they mandate are urgently needed.

Learning from a Leader in Disabled Rights

The United States has consistently been a world leader in the rights of the disabled. A full 41 years ago it legislated reasonable accommodation in “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.(*1) It expanded and extended these protections to the private sector 24 years ago under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.(*2) Also noteworthy is the pioneering role played by the US federal government, which has led the way in promoting equal opportunity by actively hiring persons with disabilities and blocking the adoption of IT equipment and systems that are not universally accessible.

Admittedly, Japan and the United States differ fundamentally in terms of their social environment and their concepts of law. Nevertheless, given that the United States has decades of experience enforcing laws that Japan enacted only last year, we should learn what we can from its example. Meanwhile, the trend toward universal access and equal rights for the disabled is rapidly gaining momentum in Europe, particularly in such countries such as Denmark and Sweden, as well as in Hong Kong, South Korea, and other parts of Asia. Japan must accelerate its efforts if it is to keep pace with the international community.

There are high hopes for a dramatic improvement in conditions for the disabled in Japan now that the government has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Japan now faces the urgent task of implementing the concrete steps set forth in the convention through legal and other measures. In two years the Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities will take effect. I hope the day will soon come when we can say that the lives of persons with disabilities have truly changed.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 11, 2014. Title photo: Then Foreign Minister Kōmura Masahiko signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in September 2007. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ As public institutions and most colleges and universities receive federal assistance, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act had a far-reaching impact and laid the groundwork for subsequent civil rights legislation regarding persons with disabilities. Among other things, it requires that those covered by the law ensure access to programs and services to qualified individuals with disabilities, provide reasonable accommodation to disabled employees, and ensure accessibility when constructing new facilities or renovating existing ones.

(*2) ^ The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits disability-based discrimination in various social settings. The law is divided into four major areas, addressing all services and facilities that are available to the general public: employment, covering job recruitment, employment, and promotion by employers having 15 or more workers; public services and public transportation, which includes all programs and services provided at the state and local levels, such as public schools, courts of law, and healthcare; public accommodations and commercial facilities, referring to operations by private businesses and nonprofit organizations; and telecommunications, such as relaying of telephone calls and television subtitles.

United Nations persons with disabilities rights convention ADA