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Man in wheelchair sues department store over wine-tasting refusal

A man in a wheelchair recalls how sad and angry he felt when he was handed a paper urging wheelchair users to refrain from tasting wine at a department store in Tokyo. Shown in the foreground is a copy of the paper in question. (Mainichi/Yuka Narita)

TOKYO -- A man has filed a damages suit against a department store and its tenant for stopping him from tasting wine at their facility on the grounds that he was using a wheelchair, demanding they pay him 1.7 million yen in compensation.

The plaintiff, a resident of Tokyo in his 50s, claims that the actions that the Seibu Ikebukuro department store in the capital's Toshima Ward took was "unfair discriminatory treatment" prohibited under the Act for Eliminating Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities.

The department store, however, argues that the measure it took was for "securing the safety of customers and employees" and that it therefore did not constitute unfair discriminatory treatment.

According to the suit filed with the Tokyo District Court, the man visited a liquor section on the store's first basement floor in a manual wheelchair in August. Just when he was tasting a second serving of wine in a space where customers could try wine for about 1,000 yen per serving, an employee handed him a paper reading, "Customers using a wheelchair or an electric wheelchair are asked to refrain from tasting wine."

As he hadn't got drunk that much, he thought it was unreasonable for him to be stopped from tasting wine and protested the request. But the employee didn't back down.

Article 8 of the Act for Eliminating Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in April 2016, stipulates that: "When carrying out its business, a company must not violate the rights or interests of persons with disabilities through disparate and unfair discriminatory treatment on the basis of disability comparing to persons without disability."

After the incident, the man filed a written protest with the department store. In its written reply, the Seibu store cited past incidents in which a user of an electric wheelchair ran over the leg of another customer and collided with the leg of a sales staff after tasting wine, at the venue of a "French fair" held at the store two years ago.

As the department store did put up a notice asking wheelchair users to refrain from tasting wine for the safety of customers and employees, the store argued that its actions "did not necessarily constitute unfair discriminatory treatment."

At the same time, the store admitted that the act of putting up a notice in a manner that was visible to third parties and a uniform response that did not give consideration to the respective conditions and statuses of each wheelchair user were inappropriate and misleading. The store pledged that it will from now on leave the decision to each customer after providing explanations individually and seeking their cooperation.

The first oral argument of the case is to be held on Nov. 21.

Under the Road Traffic Act, wheelchair users are regarded as pedestrians as long as the vehicle they ride in measures no more than 120 centimeters in length, 70 centimeters in width and 109 centimeters in height. Even in the case of an electric wheelchair, if the maximum speed was 6 kilometers or less per hour, the user is regarded as a pedestrian.

A National Police Agency manual on the safe use of electric wheelchairs urges users to "never use the vehicles after drinking."

Sogo & Seibu Co. Ltd., which operates Seibu department stores, withheld comment on the issue when reached by the Mainichi Shimbun. "We cannot answer the question as the case has been brought to court," said a representative.

(Japanese original by Yuka Narita, City News Department)

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