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Disabled lawmakers' Japan Diet sessions debut marks start of accessible parliament efforts

Yasuhiko Funago of the Reiwa Shinsengumi party prepares for his next question using an eye-controlled keyboard during a House of Councillors committee meeting on Nov. 7, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- The two House of Councillors members with severe physical disabilities who were elected for the first time in the July upper house election this year recently appeared in their first committee meetings. While this marks another milestone in moves to make the Diet more accessible for those with disabilities, it also highlighted challenges in creating a universally designed legislative environment where both support for disabled legislators and the smooth operation of meetings is achieved.

"I'm Yasuhiko Funago of the Reiwa Shinsengumi party. It's nice to meet you all," said the 62-year-old opposition lawmaker who is largely paralyzed due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), before taking his turn to ask questions during a meeting of the upper house's Committee on Education, Culture and Science on Nov. 7.

Funago cannot use his own voice to speak due to ALS, so he uses a voice synthesizer that converts written text into electronically-generated speech. The use of the device was approved during a meeting of committee directors on Oct. 28.

At the Nov. 7 committee session, Funago's secretary read out a transcript prepared by the lawmaker. He wrote that after developing ALS at 41, he felt despair, telling his doctor at one point that he would not want to receive life support. But as he met different people through peer support programs where patients with the same disease help each other, his will to live grew.

Funago brought up the topic of inclusive education, in which all students learn together regardless of disabilities. He said that the ignorance those without disabilities have about the daily lives of disabled people could lead to prejudice and discrimination. He then emphasized that inclusive child care and education is all the more necessary for children without disabilities.

Before responding to Funago's points, education minister Koichi Hagiuda told the lawmaker that he was "extremely honored" to be responding to his first-ever questions at the committee.

In addition to questions prepared beforehand, Funago also asked further questions in response to Hagiuda's remarks, which underscored the difficulty of securing his question time at committee meetings and the operation of the committee session.

Eiko Kimura of the Reiwa Shinsengumi party, center, poses her first question in the Diet during a House of Councillors Committee on Land and Transport on Nov. 5, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

As he has some limited ability to move his eyes, Funago communicated with his secretary using a keyboard that types based on the movement of his eyes to ask questions after Hagiuda's responses. This took time, and created two pauses in proceedings lasting over nine minutes each. Other committee members patiently waited for Funago to form sentences. The committee made considerations not to cut Funago's assigned time, and the meeting ended about 20 minutes past its scheduled time.

Another Reiwa party member Eiko Kimura, 54, who has severe disabilities due to cerebral palsy, also appeared in a meeting of the upper house Committee on Land and Transport on Nov. 5 to ask her first questions at the Diet. The meeting lasted five hours, and Kimura's turn was the very last. She spoke for about half an hour without voice assistance, but said after the session that it had been physically burdensome to do so.

The election of the two lawmakers with severe disabilities has prompted the Diet to be more accessible in regards to works done to renovate legislators' seats, a consideration which had not been previously anticipated. While fellow lawmakers from both ruling and opposition blocs appreciate the significance of this progress, their debut at committee meetings is only the beginning of the changes that will take place in Japan's legislature.

(Japanese original Shu Furukawa and Shinya Hamanaka, Political News Department)

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