Japan Offers Disabled a Stage for Paralympic Glory But Few Jobs
(Bloomberg) -- Japanese wheelchair racer Tomoki Sato’s last-gasp surge down the home straight landed him a gold medal in his 400 meters race at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Many of his disabled compatriots may feel a similar effort is required to land a job in Japan.
While the country will share some reflected glory from the Paralympics for raising the visibility of disabled sporting excellence, its track record for integrating people with disabilities into the workforce lags many of its peers.
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. The government raised its target for companies employing workers with disabilities to 2.3% of staff in March, but that is still less than half the goals set in France and Germany.
While progress is being made, around half of businesses in Japan are failing to meet this target, instead finding it easier to pay a monthly fine of $450 for each disabled person they should be employing, but aren’t.
“I’m hoping the Paralympics provides a good opportunity to change the mindset of Japanese people,” said gold-medalist Sato, who also won the 1500 meters race in the T52 class. More employment for disabled people is one way to build mutual understanding that leads to a richer, more diverse society, he added.
Integrating more people into the work force also makes sense for a country with a tight labor market and a shrinking population.
Charlotte V. McClain-Nhlapo, global disability adviser at the World Bank, says that in the past, staging the Paralympic Games has been a pivotal catalyst for accelerating socioeconomic inclusion. The decision to have broadcasters hire people with disabilities at the 2012 games in London challenged common misconceptions, she adds.
“Further back, if you look at Barcelona, it is one of the most accessible cities in the world, and in large part, it is the legacy of their hosting of the Paralympics,” McClain-Nhlapo said. “Many of these investments are long-term changes that will benefit local residents and tourists beyond the games themselves.”
To speed up the integration process, she cites the need for anti-discrimination legislation and a grievance mechanism, support for companies to accommodate the needs of disabled workers, and equal access to education and training.
|Japan’s policy progress:|
A very broad measure of spending on incapacity among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, shows Japan coming in at 30th out of 39 countries for the relative amount it spends. The figures include sick leave, disability benefits and payments of occupational injuries.
McClain-Nhlapo warns that it is always difficult to compare statistics across countries given the variance in how disabilities are defined and how information is collected.
Josh Grisdale, an advocate for disabled people and founder of Accessible Japan, believes more support is needed for disabled people looking for work.
He says he was shocked to be rejected for jobs because of his disability status when he first came to Japan. Previously he worked for a large company in Canada that hadn’t found his disability or wheelchair use a problem.
“But then when I came here, all the time they would say, ‘We like your resume, but we won’t be able to provide your needs.’ So that was a polite way to say: ‘No,’” he said. “It’s frustrating to meet the requirements of the job but because of something I can’t change I wasn’t able to get the job.”
Grisdale says the biggest structural difference between Canada and Japan is that personal care attendants can’t join him in the workplace in Japan. “That means it’s up to the company to take care of those kind of things,” he said.
Instead, people with disabilities say they’re often directed into work that lacks fulfillment and keeps them at a distance.
Masahiro Abe, an economics professor at Chuo University who led a government panel on the inclusion of disabled workers in the labor market, says Japan needs more discussion of the quality of work that disabled people engage in.
Abe says they often tend to be employed in easy manual labor, and can be segregated from other non-disabled workers, at times in different subsidiary companies. Their tendency to work in light manual labor also means they were harder hit by the pandemic, since they could no longer move around as easily.
“We’ve had progress in terms of the number of people who are employed, but there’s the problem that the quality of work hasn’t improved much,” said Abe. “Those with disabilities need to be considered as part of a company’s strategy, its human resources.”
Valuing the skills and talents people have rather than zooming in on specific limitations is one of the central messages of the games.
While previous stagings have focused on infrastructure such as accessible public transport systems and roads, in Japan it was the attitude for welcoming diversity that didn’t seem to match up, according to Andrew Parsons, President of the International Paralympic Committee.
“Specifically in Japan, what we want is a change in mentality in the way people with disabilities are perceived,” said Parsons. As part of this attempt, the IPC had tried to raise awareness on disability issues among children.
Still, the Paralympic medal table continues to give the impression of a perception gap. While Japan had the third biggest haul of Olympic golds this summer, as of Thursday it was lying in 15th place in the Paralympics.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.