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Editorial: Election of disabled legislators in Japan a chance to break down barriers

Universal design, which provides the infrastructure for people to live equally in society without difficulties regardless of their age or whether or not they have disabilities, is now part of a standard global view.

In Japan, two people with severe physical disabilities were elected in the July 21 House of Councillors election, and this momentum is pressing the Diet to adopt universal design.

Disabled legislators Yasuhiko Funago and Eiko Kimura were both elected through proportional representation on the ticket of the Reiwa Shinsengumi political group, which was upgraded to a political party following the election. Both of them use large wheelchairs, and require the assistance of caregivers to work. There are many issues that should be considered in the wake of their election besides renovation of the Diet chamber and the equipping of facilities to be barrier free.

Funago has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which makes it difficult for him to talk. He uses the small movements in his eyes and mouth to convey his thoughts with the help of a character chart and a computer. He will probably ask questions and vote on issues through his caregiver.

Under current regulations for the House of Councillors, even if legislators only want to bring a cane into the chamber, they need to notify its president in advance. Slopes have been in use since the first election of Eita Yashiro, a wheelchair user who served for 28 years as a lawmaker. But the use of wheelchairs, like canes, is regarded as a special exception.

The upper house Committee on Rules and Administration addressed corresponding measures on July 25. It is fine to widen the scope of special exceptions, but legislators should also consider updating rules.

Democracy in Japan stands on Diet discussion by representatives of the public. There cannot be a situation where a legislator is unable to sufficiently engage in debate due to a disability. If there is a problem with the Diet facilities or system, then the ruling and opposition parties should fix it and make an effort to guarantee that people can fully express their opinions.

The Diet will need to be flexible on the time that is allotted to each political party or group for questions, on the premise that it will take those with disabilities time to make statements and express their intentions.

In 2016, a problem arose after the House of Representatives turned away a patient with ALS as an unsworn witness on the grounds that questions and answers would take too long. The upper house allowed the person to speak, accompanied by three helpers, and the question session went ahead, but the event served as a heavy lesson for the Diet.

In the latest upper house election, a former Paralympian who uses a wheelchair was also elected. There was also a candidate who is deaf.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimates that there are more than 9 million people in Japan with physical or mental disabilities, accounting for 7.4% of Japan's population. The Diet will need to prepare for the scenario of people with visual or hearing disabilities becoming lawmakers in the future.

We hope the situation will lead to universal design that will break down systematic and awareness-related "barriers" in the future.

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