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Diet moves to accommodate disabled legislators following upper house election

Taro Yamamoto, leader of the political group Reiwa Shinsengumi, right, bows to Yasuhiko Funago after reports that the latter had secured a seat in the House of Councillors, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on the night of July 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)
Eiko Kimura, left, poses with Taro Yamamoto, leader of the political group Reiwa Shinsengumi, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward early on July 22, 2019, upon learning about her projected victory in the July 21 House of Councillors election. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- The election of two severely disabled people as members of the House of Councillors in the July 21 poll is expected to spur efforts to facilitate participation in politics by those with disabilities.

The Diet is poised to remove as many barriers as possible from the National Diet Building to support parliamentary activities by Yasuhiko Funago, 61, and Eiko Kimura, 54, who successfully ran in the election on the ticket of the political group Reiwa Shinsengumi. Funago is largely paralyzed due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) while Kimura suffered a cervical spine injury when she was 8 months old, and was left with severe disabilities.

The board of the Rules and Administration Committee of the upper chamber reached a 17-point agreement to make the Diet barrier-free at a meeting on July 25, about a week before an extraordinary session is convened on Aug. 1.

Shinsuke Suematsu, chairman of the panel, said legislators from both ruling coalition and opposition parties will fully cooperate in supporting legislators with disabilities. "The committee unanimously agreed to try to ensure that the two legislators can smoothly conduct their parliamentary activities," he said.

Under the agreement, a slope will be set up at the front entrance situated between the lower and upper houses to allow Funago and Kimura to illuminate their electrical name plates. However, since it is technically difficult to set up a slope at the staircase inside the building, after the legislators have passed through the entrance, they will be asked to go back out of the Diet building and then enter again through another entrance.

The measure will be taken because "it's extremely important for new legislators to go into the Diet building through the front entrance," Satoshi Oie, a senior member of the chamber's Rules and Administration Committee, explained. The front door is opened only on special occasions. Other times include when the Diet welcomes the Emperor and when state guests visit the legislature.

This file photo shows the National Diet Building in Tokyo. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

On July 25, staffers at the Diet examined the front entrance to see where a slope could be set up.

As a customary practice, those who have been elected fewer times are given seats in the front rows. However, since the two disabled legislators have restricted physical mobility, they will be given seats in back rows near exits that are usually given to senior lawmakers who have been elected numerous terms.

Measures to help Funago and Kimura vote on bills and resolutions have been incorporated in the accord. They face trouble with voting by standing up or remaining seated, as well as by casting signed ballots or pushing yes or no buttons. Therefore, when the chamber holds a standing vote or an electrical vote using buttons, caregivers will vote on behalf of the two. When the upper house holds a signed vote, their helpers will write on their ballots and staffers at the upper house secretariat will cast their ballots on their behalf.

However, these are just temporary measures. The question of how to make sure that the two disabled legislators can sufficiently participate in full-scale policy debate in an extraordinary session in autumn will pose a challenge.

Time is allocated to various political parties and factions for questioning in Diet panels in proportion to the number of seats they have in each chamber. However, since Funago has difficulties speaking due to ALS, concerns have been raised over whether his policy discussions in the chamber will be sufficient.

It is assumed that extended time may be allocated to Funago. But since such an exceptional measure could affect the allocation of questioning time to other parties and factions, it could be a struggle for parties and parliamentary blocs in the chamber to coordinate their views.

As Funago and Kimura step up their political activities, many more challenges will likely surface. The Diet is expected to go through trials and errors to make the Diet Building barrier-free.

(Japanese original by Takashi Yamashita and Aya Shiota, Integrated Digital News Center)

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