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Train passengers called on to help the blind as accidents continue

Misako Kamamoto holds onto a handrail and uses a white stick to judge the distance between her and the train at JR Iidabashi Station in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi)

As accidents involving visually impaired people falling onto train tracks continue across Japan, the question of how trains and stations can accommodate those with impaired vision remains pertinent. It is something that 76-year-old Misako Kamamoto, chairwoman of the Japan Blind Person Outdoor Support Association (JBOS), has been asking herself recently.

As Kamamoto walks with a white stick from her home in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward to JR Yoyogi Station, together with a female helper and this journalist, she comments on the sunshine: "It is very bright today, isn't it? I can feel the sunshine but I can't see it, which is a very strange sensation."

Previously, Kamamoto worked as an overseas tour conductor and traveled around the world but she became blind six years ago, after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in her 50s. Currently, she works as the head of JBOS, which was established in 1996 to provide support, through a network of volunteers, to visually impaired people anywhere in Japan. When she uses trains, Kamamoto usually requests help from volunteers at JBOS or asks for help from the station staff.

Upon arriving at Yoyogi Station, Kamamoto descends the stairs slowly but steadily with some assistance from her helper. They count the steps together: "... 8, 9, 10." The yellow stickers that are at the side of the staircase were once very helpful for Kamamoto, specifically around the time where her vision started to worsen.

"Now they are no use to me," she says, thinking about those bright stickers. "Braille is a helpful guide for people like me, but I can't read Braille. We each have different methods that we rely on to get by."

An announcement is heard over the loudspeakers, confirming that a train is about to arrive. Kamamoto comments on how she used to find those announcements slightly annoying, but now, she depends on them. She tries to sense the location and general flow of the other passengers, as she moves toward finding the train door. She puts out her white stick, in an attempt to ascertain the distance between her and the train, and walks forward slowly but surely.

The platform is very crowded, but this is actually a blessing in disguise. Whenever there are hardly any other passengers on the platform, it is much harder to work out the location of the train doors. Her helper holds her by the left hand and guides her.

When she is inside the train car, Kamamoto concentrates hard on the opening and closing of the doors as well as the flow of people in and out of the train. One begins to wonder what color the world is for people who are completely blind. "In my case, it is completely white," says Kamamoto. "When I close my eyelids, the world is still white, although there are times when it is pitch-black as well."

The train arrives at Iidabashi Station. The station has been described as "the most dangerous station in Tokyo," according to a survey by an organization representing disabled people, owing to factors such as the gap between the train and the platform measuring as wide as 33 centimeters.

Kamamoto gets out her stick once again, in an effort to confirm the distance, and alights from a train together with her helper. "The slightest mistake in judging distances can result in an accident, so I have to stay focused," explains Kamamoto.

A few moments later, Kamamoto called me, saying, "Look over here." The Braille blocks are three steps away from the edge of the platform. This is one more step than usual. Typically, the block is two steps away from the edge. While this station has placed the Braille blocks a little farther from the edge of the platform for as a safety measure, for people with impaired vision this means they have to take one extra step to get on the train. Small changes like this could lead to an accident.

In addition to the platforms, elevators can also be problematic with people whose sight is impaired. It can sometimes be difficult to work out the position of the buttons. Escalators too, can cause confusion when it is unclear whether they are going up or down.

As efforts are being made to create barrier-free stations in Japan, I asked Kamamoto to share her opinions on this initiative.

"Ideally, platform doors would be very welcome. However, this would cost a lot of time and money, and I don't think that it is particularly realistic. A simple 'Can I help you?' would be greatly appreciated. People should take interest in others and care for each other, and those who need help should pluck up the courage to ask for help," Kamamoto says in a serious but hopeful manner. (By Kasane Nakamura, Lifestyle News Department)

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