Paralympic Games Put Spotlight on Japan’s Tech for Disabled
(Bloomberg) -- When the Tokyo Paralympic games come to a close on Sunday, many athletes will have managed to get to the finish line, some with medals, thanks to technology from Japan’s largest firms.
Honda Motor Co.’s latest model of racing wheelchair, for example, features carbon technology that’s also used for the company’s F1 racers and jet planes. Using carbon in its key components, including the frame and wheel, the vehicles weigh just 7.9 kilograms (17.4 pounds), among the lightest in the industry.
Honda has paid attention to design too, for example by bringing the steering component into the frame of the vehicle to achieve a sleeker silhouette.
“We developed this model with the concept of making it look cool,” Junji Takado, expert engineer at Honda R&D Co. who led the development of the vehicle, said in an interview. “Enough so that everyone will want to ride the Kakeru, not just specific athletes.”
One of the athletes that rides the Kakeru is Switzerland’s Manuela Schaer. The Paralympian won gold in the women’s 400 meter and 800 meter races, and racked up two more silver medals in other events. Following one race where it rained, she commented on the importance of her vehicle.
“It’s a lifetime struggle to actually find the best material to perform in the rain,” she said. “You have to find something to get that grip back. I tried so many different things and I finally feel I have found the best solution thanks to my sponsor Honda, who helped me a lot to find good material.”
Takado said that hosting the Paralympics in Japan has been a good opportunity for people to get to know the attractions of paralympic sports, but he hopes that those with disabilities will now try the sports out themselves.
“Technology exists for people,” he said. “I’m hoping that there’ll be a world where people with disabilities can live more fully through technology.”
Other Japanese companies that have produced equipment for paralympic athletes include tire maker Bridgestone Corp., which provided rubber soles for runners and tires for wheelchair tennis players. Sportswear maker Mizuno Corp. and prosthetic parts maker Imasen Engineering Corp. teamed up to create “Katana Sigma,” limbs developed for short-distance runners and long-jumpers.
Meanwhile, telecommunications firm Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp.’s “Japan Walk Guide” app has helped wheelchair users access game venues by providing up-to-date, detailed information on disabled access across the city.
“The idea was to ease worries over access,” said Yusuke Ichikawa, who helped develop the guide at NTT. “We also give information on why a particular route was chosen, what facilities can be used.”
While these technologies have helped athletes perform at the world’s highest levels, companies in Japan lag many of their peers elsewhere when it comes to integrating people with disabilities into the workforce. The proportion of working-age disabled people with a job in Japan is around 19%, based on a Bloomberg calculation, compared with 30% in the U.S.
Ryuhei Sano, a professor at Hosei University in Tokyo who specializes in social welfare, said that companies need to do more in terms of inclusiveness.
“It’s important to bring in the perspective of someone with a disability in all forms of corporate activity,” he said. By increasing those efforts, “I’m hoping that there’ll be more firms that believe those efforts will lead to new ideas and innovation.”
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