Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Access for the Handicapped in Tokyo

Most people who live in Tokyo know that access for handicapped people has been improving over the last decade. It's gone from nearly non-existent to being available in most major stations and stores. It's still unavailable on the older subway lies, particularly at the stations which are not major business hubs.

I'm smack in the middle of two Marunouchi line stations and neither has access via any means other than very long concrete steps. When someone in a wheelchair needs to use the station, they have to call the station beforehand and arrange to be carried up and down the steps by station personnel.

When I've witnessed this happening, I've often wondered how the person in the chair feels. Do they feel helpless or degraded because of this need to rely on others? Or do they feel grateful they're being helped? I can't say I could ever really understand until I'd experienced their situation. I can only say it'd probably make me feel diminished in some way but I say that without having made the transition handicapped people must make mentally when adjusting to their situation.

At any rate, the reason this came to mind today was that I witnessed an unusual, but I'm sure not atypical, access problem today. I was leaving the local QQ (99 yen shop, like a dollar shop) after picking up milk and yogurt and there was a man in a wheelchair sitting outside the shop. I thought he was probably looking at the drinks and fruit that are stacked outside the shop trying to decide what he wanted to buy.

As I was getting on my bike, a clerk from inside the shop came out with a bag with some items and gave the man change. What was clear from the exchange, and from the layout of the store, was that the man had to ask the store clerk to buy what he wanted because the aisles were too cluttered for him to shop inside for himself.

Aisles in Japanese shops are hardly spacious but even these ones were likely wide enough to accommodate the man's wheelchair as it wasn't an especially big one. The problem was that, as is often the case with Japanese markets, there were stacks of boxes partially blocking the end caps of every aisle such that one person can barely squeeze by. The shops do this because they're so small that they don't have as much space to display items as they'd like, but it is annoying despite the good excuse. If you are carrying shopping bags, or wearing a backpack, it's easy enough to accidentally topple stacked items in these makeshift "displays" with one false move.

I'm guessing people in wheelchairs tend to avoid shops with such limited access but the QQ shop is unusually cheap for some grocery items, particularly if you want to buy certain types of prepackaged food (which you may want to do if you're handicapped and have problems preparing food). I felt rather bad for this man that he couldn't even go in and have the small privilege of choosing his own items because of this troublesome tendency in the shops. Maybe he didn't even care and was just as happy not to bother but I know it'd probably bug me.


Roy said...

On the other hand, you can order just about anything in this country and have it delivered to your house.

My friend works in a growing elderly care industry driving around a van with 2 other "nurses." The van is equipped with a hot water boiler and they visit different houses to literally bathe elderly folk who for whatever reasons cannot physically do it themselves.

But you're right about access in Tokyo. There's just too many stairs and every store is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Shari said...

I'm sure the elderly care market will just keep expanding given the aging population. I just wonder how connected it is to ability to pay. The fellow in the wheelchair, who I coincidentally saw yesterday again at the same store, isn't elderly. He looks to be in his early 50's tops and lost part of a leg. I'm guessing that he's probably not all that well-off or he wouldn't be shopping at a 99 yen shop frequently. I could be seeing it all wrong though. Maybe he just likes what they carry and sees no point in paying more.

Somehow, I think the Japanese won't be filing many lawsuits. It's not really a part of the culture and I think the laws aren't structured to support such things as they are in the U.S. It's sort of both a bad and a good thing in that way. The U.S. is way out of hand in regards to lawsuits.