Rights Champion Wins One for Disabled

Toyonaka assemblywoman challenges physical, social, job obstacles

By BRIAN COVERT
REGIONAL CORRESPONDENT

OSAKA — Kayoko Irube’s life, like that of millions of other disabled people in Japan, has been a daily struggle against both physical and mental obstacles encountered in mainstream society.

This year, however, Irube decided to fight from the other side of the barriers. She ran for an assembly seat in the city of Toyonaka — and won.

Irube views her unprecedented victory as one that symbolizes the rising spirit of unity and self-determination that is needed among disabled people nationwide.

“We need to appeal our problems to the public at large,” said Irube, 41, who was stricken with cerebral palsy during infancy. “Non-disabled persons too would be upset if their range of activities was as limited as ours.”

Her electoral victory in April has brought about some definite improvements around city offices in Toyonaka, such as sloping walkways, handrails and public toilets for disabled people.

“Whenever I go out somewhere in my wheelchair I have to stop at the foot of the stairs, wondering what I should do,” Irube says. “The people around me act as if it is strange for disabled persons to want to visit such public places.”

Irube also endorses the Osaka municipal government’s recent decision to furnish some downtown commuter buses with wheelchair lifts, a first in Japan.

Another priority for Irube is pressuring businesses and governmental institutions to provide more jobs to people with disabilities.

“Although many disabled persons frequent job-placement offices, they are repeatedly turned down and told there are no suitable jobs available for them,” she said.

Irube recently joined a delegation of disabled people who voiced their job protests directly to officials of the Kansai Economic Federation (Kankeiren). She calls the action a major stepping stone for the 54,000 unemployed disabled people in Japan who want to work.

“This was the first time to hold talks with such a high-level organization,” she said. “It was significant that we could even sit down and talk with them about the problem.”

The delegation, formed by the National Coalition of Liberation Movements for Disabled People (Zenshoren), called on Kankeiren officials to pressure regional companies to hire more people with disabilities, as stated in the Law for Employment Promotion of the Disabled.

Under the law, companies with more than 63 employees must reserve 1.6 percent of their total job positions for disabled people.

Zenshoren claims the actual figure among Japanese businesses is lagging at 1.32 percent. The 5,000-member disabled coalition is demanding that the Labor Ministry make public a confidential list of 113 companies that are not complying with the law.

At the same time, Irube says, disabled people also need to create their own jobs and their own sense of self-worth despite the various hurdles they must face.

Toward that end, the mother of two sons is actively involved in the local A-to-Z Association. Its disabled members cook their own bread, produce and sell soap made from used cooking oil and learn office skills like operating a word processor.

Annual profits from the group, which was started 16 years ago, are about ¥10 million. But this is “hardly a sufficient allotment among 30 people,” Irube said. “I can safely say that our financial situation is worse than that of small companies. It is a harsh reality.”

She is also affiliated with a local disabled group Shoku Yokose no Kai (Give Us a Job Network), which monitors job-placement offices and distributes employment information among disabled people.

Regardless of their determination, Irube said, overall progress in the lives of the more than 3 million disabled people in the nation remains agonizingly slow. She vows to continue the fight as a public servant.

“We constantly point out the discrimination against us, yet Japanese people still cannot understand what discrimination means,” she said. “…So I have to continue to keep my eyes on ways to improve this society, so that it’s more livable for the disabled.”