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'Inclusivity' the key to Tokyo Paralympic legacy: British experts

The University Arena at Britain's University of Worcester is seen in 2013. A ramp forms a gently sloping line across the front of the structure.

The key word for a successful Paralympic Games with a lasting social impact is "inclusivity," according to two senior faculty from Britain's University of Worcester, in Japan recently to share information with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games organising committee.

    The last Summer Paralympic Games in London in 2012 were, by the numbers, a success. According to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), most of the events sold out, with total attendance hitting some 2.7 million. Meanwhile, a cumulative audience of about 3.8 billion watched the Paralympics on TV. However, it's the lasting impact on disability sports and broader social inclusion for the disabled that most concern university Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive David Green and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor for Inclusive Sport and Educational Engagement Mick Donovan.

    "(One) thing we've really tried to impress (during the visit) is the importance of developing practitioners -- coaches and teachers -- in an inclusive approach" to the disabled, starting with incorporating inclusivity training in university degree programs, Donovan told The Mainichi in a recent interview in Tokyo. Green added that, with educators trained to "work in an inclusive way," they will "see things that need changes and change them, and encourage other people."

    Green went on to say that facilities "should be designed to be inclusive for the whole community, including people with disabilities, rather than having a policy of designing separate facilities for disabled people."

    University of Worcester Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive David Green is pictured in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

    The University of Worcester has been working to implement these ideas on its home turf since the early 2000s, according to Green. The school offers a degree program designed specifically to produce experts in disability sports and fitness, and in 2013 opened an arena designed from the ground-up to be easy-to-use for all comers, disabled or not, and which a Tokyo 2020 delegation visited last year.

    In addition to a front ramp that is a central part of the arena's exterior aesthetic, Green points to all-accessible washrooms, changing rooms with enough space for anyone in a wheelchair, showers with adjustable-height shower heads, and wide hallways and spectator entry gates. There are also hand and hair driers as well as sinks installed at both sitting and standing level, seats in the showers, and reception counters at wheelchair height.

    Nobuko Tanaka, associate professor at Toin University of Yokohama and adviser to Tokyo 2020 organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto, told The Mainichi that the Worcester arena is an example of the inclusivity she would like to see more of in Japan. Herself a wheelchair user, she points out that disabled individuals are sometimes told by sports facilities that they are not equipped for disability sports. For example, a person in a wheelchair may be refused access to an indoor court because the floor was not designed for wheels and could be damaged.

    "I hope the (2020) Paralympics will open the door (for Japan) to become an inclusive society," said Tanaka. According to Green, based on Britain's experience, the Paralympics can help spur this inclusion.

    Sinks and kitchen counters installed at both sitting and standing height are seen in a University of Worcester residence. (Photo courtesy of Nobuko Tanaka)

    "Since (the) 2012 Paralympics there is a broader appreciation that people with physical disabilities can also be first class athletes and are able to make a full contribution to society," he said. Meanwhile, according to the IPC, a survey conducted shortly before the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony found that one in three adult Britons had changed their attitude toward people with impairment because of the Games, while 81 percent of respondents said the Games had a "positive impact on the way people with an impairment are viewed by the public."

    In concrete terms, according to Britain's Department of Works and Pensions, hosting the games catalyzed accessibility improvements on buses and trains, and prompted professional football clubs to renovate their stadiums for easier access based on the barrier-free Olympic Park. Meanwhile, the BBC, ITV and other major broadcasters committed to hiring more disabled people, and the government began a campaign "to support businesses to become more confident at recruiting disabled people." And according to a department report from December 2014 -- about two years after the Games -- the disability employment rate had risen 2.5 percentage points from the 45 percent seen the year previous, translating into a net gain of some 259,000 disabled people in work.

    To build the critical mass of public awareness and opinion that can drive this kind of lasting Paralympic legacy, Donovan pointed out, "it's important that before the games, there's an awareness that the Paralympics are coming and there's going to be some fantastic athletes taking part." And in the longer term, an inclusive attitude to people with disabilities is also needed to be cultivated in schools, "so (that to) the children, as they grow up, it becomes just a natural part of life."

    Though for any of this to happen, Green said, change "must come from leadership in Japan itself." (By Robert Sakai-Irvine, Staff Writer)

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