Becoming a Public Scholar

Hello everyone!

This week has possibly been the busiest out of my entire time in Japan so far.

On Monday, I started preparing for a lecture that I was asked to give to the Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) Working Group on Asia about accessibility in developing countries. Drawing on my personal experiences as a wheelchair user in Japan and the United States, I’ll identify how disconnects arise between local, national, international, and transnational constructions of accessibility. I’ll emphasize how those disconnects can create problems for persons with disabilities by restricting opportunities for education, employment, and other forms social participation, calling attention to the importance of collaborative design in creating accessible systems. My lecture is still a work in progress, but I suspect that it’ll turn out alright in the end. Thankfully, its not until early April, so I have some time to let it marinate before I need to finish things up. Taking advantage of some of that time, I continued my research on colony formation and patient movements during the postwar period on Monday afternoon.

On Tuesday, I left my apartment early to attend a meeting of the Tokyo Friendship Society of the Deafblind led by Ms. Akiko Fukuda (東京盲ろう者友の会). Ms. Fukuda and I have met on several occasions before. I’ll refrain from giving out too many of her personal details here, but suffice it to say that Ms. Fukuda has led a very interesting life up until this point. She is deafblind and also uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. Ms. Fukuda communicates using Japanese and English, and she is also fluent in multiple forms of sign language. It was extremely interesting watching Ms. Fukuda facilitate the meeting, which was attended by around thirty people. Among the attendees were several interpreters and many individuals with disabilities: visual, hearing, mobility, and otherwise. Each person with a disability had their own degree of impairment and mode of communication, making for a truly unique set of interactions. I was fascinated watching the interpreters translate Ms. Fukuda’s exploration of the topic of the day (universal design) as well as the self-introductions of each person in the room. Still, I was even more awestruck by my own biases and naïveté in conversation. For the first time in my life, I was in a situation where I not only had to announce that I communicate via spoken word, but also had to figure out how to explain that information to individuals who might not be able to comprehend it otherwise due to their sensory impairments.  While my advisor at the University of Tokyo is deafblind, our conversations have always been contextually mitigated: I knew he was deafblind, and he knew I wasn’t, so we had a predetermined mode of communication. That was not so at this meeting, where I encountered strangers about whom I knew very little. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one that I hope to take forward and apply to my work in the future. Indeed, I was so exhausted from thinking about the scholarly implications of my experience that I decided to take the night off on Tuesday and go out to see the most recent Spiderman movie. It was really good, and I’d highly recommend it to any/everyone interested.

On Wednesday, I traveled to the University of Tokyo to participate in a joint meeting of the research labs of Dr. Satoshi Fukushima (my advisor) and Dr. Shin’ichiro Kumagaya. At the meeting, I delivered a two-hour presentation about my dissertation research in Japanese. While I think that I may not have effectively communicated some of the finer details of my dissertation (which covers one-hundred years of policies and movements related to disability in Japan), the overall message rang clear and I received praise from the twelve individuals in attendance. My advisor was particularly pleased with my framing of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games as a prism through which we can understand the past, present, and future of accessibility in Japan. Dr. Kumagaya, for his part, was interested in my decision to emphasize the present condition of accessibility and encouraged me to be more explicit about my framing in future presentations. I’m truly grateful to everyone who attended that meeting and gave me insightful feedback, which I hope to use to continue developing my project. After finishing my presentation and meeting with my advisor for a few minutes in his office, I dashed toward the station and caught a train to the center of Tokyo, where I attended a practice session for my TED talk. The talk took place yesterday afternoon: I talk about it in greater detail below.

On Thursday, I traveled to Mitaka to meet up with Ms. Fukuda once again. This time, Ms. Fukuda invited me to attend a party at her house along with four other motorized wheelchair users and five caregivers. It was the first time that I’d seen more than two wheelchair users fit into an apartment in Tokyo, let alone five! Despite being cramped for space, we somehow managed to fit everyone in and had a great time talking about our interests and experiences. A few brief notes about our conversation:

1) Despite the fact that our ages differ drastically (27, 33, 41, 59, and 94) and we have different conditions, we found that we have lots in common. For instance, we all have problems with our bathrooms that have required us to significantly remodel, renovate, and customize our homes.

2) It was really interesting to hear about how structural barriers in the Japanese education system opened up new opportunities for some of the guests. For instance, one partygoer told me that she was unable to attend regular school due to a lack of accommodation and therefore attended an aftercare program where she learned English, Korean, and French. That she learned foreign languages (and is now fluent in them) because of her isolation from mainstream education is endlessly fascinating to me.

3) I asked my new friends about how Japan ought to proceed if it is to become accessible. Their answers can be summarized as follows: no matter how many laws we enact or policies we create, Japan will not become accessible if the will to enforce those laws and policies is not present. Indeed, the existence of welfare actors and objects (caregivers, wheelchairs, etc.) means little without proper guidance, training, and support. It is often the case that people with disabilities actively refuse assistance from caregivers despite a real need as accepting help from those with improper training can pose an even greater risk than failing to receive any. Scarcity of resources and constant turnover of caregivers makes this a real problem that Japan as a nation has yet to address.

On Friday, I headed to the House of Representatives of Japan to attend a lecture series about cohabitation of persons with disabilities and those without in workplace settings. That the lecture took place in the building of a government that has recently admitted to misreporting employment statistics of persons with disabilities for the last forty years was not lost on those in attendance. Still, the general air was one of positivity and discussion centered on ways of moving forward with workplace integration. The speakers emphasized the importance of capitalizing upon the unique perspective that persons with disabilities can bring to the workplace: how they can accomplish certain tasks that able-bodied users cannot precisely because they are disabled. Emphasizing the value of disabled laborers was of critical importance, as historically that value has often been overlooked in Japan. Indeed, persons with disabilities have often been understood as lacking the qualifications necessary to pursue various kinds of jobs: a condition that is usually attributed to the historical unavailability of education, welfare, and other social services. The transformation of persons with disabilities from “workers with difficulties” to “workers with unique skills” will likely usher in a new kind of economy for Japan, but what will that economy look like? How will it intersect with other global markets? And who else might be affected by it? These philosophical questions remained unanswered, but they drove me to think about the issue in greater detail. Unfortunately, I didn’t have too long to think as I had to rush back to Odaiba to meet with a dear friend, Patrick Galbraith. Patrick and I spent the evening drinking sake and talking about our shared love of anime and manga as well as the state of Japanese academia. He gave me some great advice regarding how I ought to move forward with my job hunt, and for that I’m truly grateful.

On Saturday, I ran out to Roppongi to attend the final rehearsal for my TED talk. For the first time, I got on stage and had the chance to recite my lines while manipulating my PowerPoint. As fate would have it, the auditorium lost power around halfway through my presentation, and I found myself rather off-kilt for the remainder of my speech. Unfortunately, I did not have time for a repeat performance as the remaining time had been blocked out for the other speakers. Still, I wasn’t going to complain, as I was confident with my presentation on the whole. After all, I’d given it many, many times up until that point at home and at informal rehearsals. I sat in the audience for a while and watched the other speakers before running back to Odaiba for yet another dinner meeting. This time, I sat down with Christa Mullis, a masters student at Hiroshima University researching comparative education (history and method) for persons with autism in Japan and the United States. Christa and I spoke in great detail about our respective research interests and overlapping experiences. As it turns out, we both studied abroad at Sophia University through CIEE and know many of the same people. I wish Christa nothing but the best for her project and hope that she finds her way back to Tokyo at some point in the near future.

On Sunday, I woke up early, donned my suit, hopped a taxi, and headed back to Roppongi to attend the TEDxFulbright Tokyo conference. The event featured speakers from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines: academics, politicians, media specialists, and so forth. Presentations were equally diverse, covering issues related to the construction of race, gender, and disability, as well as matters pertaining to immigration, urban design, and technical innovation. Uniting all of the talks and speakers was the conference theme, “Connect the World.” The event was truly wonderful, and I cannot express how grateful I am to the organizers for allowing me to take part. My speech, which focused on the importance of crowdsourcing technologies for creating accessibility, will be uploaded to Youtube at some point in the future. I’ll share a link on this blog as soon as it is available. For now, I’d like to thank the organizers, as well as all of my co-presenters, for their hard work and dedication in making the event a great success: not just for me, but for the hundreds of audience members in attendance. I’m sure that the event was just the beginning of a much larger conversation about the future of the human race, and that it will act as a catalyst for realizing participants’ respective visions of a more benevolent and inclusive world. As I said in my speech, the TED venue provides a great opportunity for speakers and audience members (in person and/or online) to learn how to transform their respective barriers into possibilities. I hope that everyone does their best to capitalize upon that opportunity and work to create a better future.

Today, I stayed home and rested from a very busy week. Indeed, I have more plans starting tomorrow, so I needed a day off.

As always, thank you for reading, everyone. Stay tuned, as I’ll have more updates next week. Cheers.

House Party at Ms. Fukuda's
House Party at Ms. Fukuda’s
TED Talk (Photo Credit: Yuriko Kon)

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