TOKYO: The election of two candidates with serious disabilities to Japan’s parliament was hailed by activists Monday, saying it could help boost understanding and improve infrastructure for those in the community.
Yasuhiko Funago has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a neurological disease that causes loss of muscle control, and Eiko Kimura has cerebral palsy, which can affect movement.
Both candidates, who use wheelchairs, were elected to the upper house on the ticket of a newly formed opposition party.
“I look frail but I’ve got strong guts. I’m putting my life at stake,” 61-year-old Funago said in a message, read by his caregiver, on Sunday after his election victory.
“I don’t want other disabled people to suffer like me,” added Funago, who uses a special slightly reclined wheelchair and an artificial respirator.
Japan’s cabinet office says there are 9.63 million people in the country with physical, mental or intellectual disabilities.
“I want people to look at me with their own eyes and think once again what necessary assistance should be like,” Funago added.
The head of Japan’s ALS association hailed Funago’s election as a “landmark.”
“It is unprecedented social participation and a landmark that a severely disabled person… will play an active role in national politics,” Shigeyuki Shimamori said in a statement.
“We want people to understand Mr Funago’s disability, and make the national parliament barrier-free for wheelchairs, and give reasonable consideration to those with communication difficulty,” he added.
Funago is the first person with ALS to be elected to the national parliament, although there have been lawmakers who used wheelchairs before.
Kimura, 54, who is paralysed from the neck down, called during her campaign for a system to ensure necessary care for the disabled.
The election wins come as government officials tout efforts to improve infrastructure for people with disabilities ahead of the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020.
But activists say the community is often poorly integrated into Japanese society, and point to a horrific 2016 stabbing attack that killed 19 people at a care home for the disabled as evidence that attitudes need to change.
“Disabled people winning elections and becoming elected officials in Japan is very important as a symbol of a possible change in attitudes towards the disabled in Japan,” said Michael Gillan Peckitt, a part-time lecturer at Osaka University, and an expert on disability studies.
“Japan as a country is not necessarily much worse than other countries overall when it comes to access, but sometimes cultural attitudes can appear to be different and seemingly more negative,” he told AFP.
The election of Funago and Kimura is expected to require adjustments at the national parliament, or Diet.
“The wheelchair Mr Funago is using seems larger and heavier than the standard wheelchair politicians have used before,” a Diet spokeswoman told AFP.
“So we’ll ask him what is necessary and the parliamentary committee for rules and administration will discuss the matter.”
Funago also relies on a caretaker, whose presence throughout parliamentary and committee sessions will be discussed.