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Wheelchair users praise design of stadium for 2020 Olympics, Paralympics

Satoshi Sato, secretary-general of Disabled Peoples International Japanese National Assembly.
Taichi Niwa, architectural designer

Architect Kengo Kuma's "Plan A" for a new national stadium that will serve as the main venue for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics was selected over rival "Plan B," which was jointly proposed by architect Toyo Ito and three major contractors.

    Handicap access -- also known as universal design -- was one of the major categories on which the two proposals were evaluated. While Plan A, whose construction will begin in December 2016, has received praise, it has also received requests from those with disabilities for more inclusive designs.

    "Plan A gives thorough consideration to making sure that people in wheelchairs will be able to see what's taking place," says architectural designer Taichi Niwa, 48, who himself has been using a wheelchair since a cervical spine injury. Tokyo will be the first city to host the summer Paralympic games twice, and it must prepare itself to welcome many athletes with disabilities.

    Plan A sets the eye level of wheelchair users at 100 centimeters from the ground, and the stadium has been designed so that even if a fellow spectator 175 centimeters tall were to stand up in the row directly in front of the wheelchair user, the latter's view will not be blocked.

    In its handicap access construction guidelines, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism states that it is ideal to design facility seats with wheelchair users' eye levels set at 105 centimeters. The figure is based on data from the Architectural Institute of Japan, and the premise that those in wheelchairs will sit up straight. But sitting up straight is not always possible for all wheelchair users. Meanwhile, the average height of Japanese men is 170 centimeters, and obviously higher than that when they're wearing shoes.

    Organizations that advocate on behalf of disabled persons have continued to call on the Japan Sport Council (JSC), the body in charge of the stadium's construction, to set wheelchair users' eye level lower and able-bodied spectators' heights taller. Niwa says of Plan A, "When the crowd goes wild, it will prevent wheelchair users' view from being blocked and from them missing out on a decisive moment."

    Plan B, however, had received higher points from the JSC assessment panel in terms of handicap accessibility in its design: while Plan A was given 48 points, Plan B racked up 53 by including glassed-in seating for those with disabilities that sometimes make them shout loudly and suddenly.

    Secretary-general of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples International, Satoshi Sato, 48, who has been using a wheelchair since he suffered a spinal cord injury, praised Plan B as being "unconventional."

    Under Plan A, some 70 percent of wheelchair seating is concentrated in the lowest first tier of the stands, but the International Paralympic Committee is demanding that wheelchair seating be spread out not only horizontally, but vertically as well. Doing so will provide spectators with disabilities multiple options, including where they will watch the games from, and how much they will pay for seating, since seats closer to the field are more expensive than those farther away.

    Says Sato, "If we're aiming for the world's best stadium, the designer must rethink the idea of putting more wheelchair seating in the stands' second and third tiers."

    Taisei Corp., the construction giant that will build the stadium, says it will hold workshops that include people with disabilities, and reflect their requests in the final design. "Detailed layouts of handicap bathrooms have yet to be finished," Niwa says. "Hopefully the voices of those with disabilities will be reflected in the design at each crucial step, so that ultimately we end up with a facility that everyone finds convenient to use."

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