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Japanese wheelchair user who promoted independence for the disabled leaves lasting legacy

Norifumi Gogo is seen in this photo provided by the nonprofit organization "independent living center Bloom."

KITAKYUSHU, Fukuoka -- A man with paralysis in all four limbs, who promoted the independence of people with disabilities and held lectures at companies and schools to boost understanding of such individuals, was fatally hit by a car in this southwest Japan city in February.

    Norifumi Gogo, 46 at the time, was hit by a van at an intersection on National Route No. 3 in Kitakyushu's Kokurakita Ward at around 10:35 a.m. on Feb. 26. The man was on the pedestrian crossing in an electric wheelchair when he was hit by the vehicle that apparently ignored a red light, and he died later that day.

    The accident occurred near the office of the nonprofit organization "independent living center Bloom," where Gogo was a representative. "He was always working until the end. He was supposed to meet with a young person with a disability at the office at 11 a.m. that day," Yuhei Tanaka, a 48-year-old member of Bloom, said regretfully.

    According to Tanaka, Gogo sustained a cervical spine injury when he jumped into a pool when he was in high school. He suffered severe disabilities from the neck down, including numbness in his lower body. Still, he kept on living with a positive attitude. After entering the Faculty of Law at the University of Kitakyushu, Gogo took the bar examination. Although he did not pass, he continued to take the test by writing with his hand using assistive devices.

    Tanaka, who was a senior at the university and met Gogo on campus, has a serious disability that causes his muscles to weaken over time due to an illness he was born with. He established Bloom in 2007 with the aim of "creating a society where people can live in the community even if they have severe disabilities," and invited Gogo to work with him. When Tanaka stepped down as a representative in 2014 after his mental and physical health deteriorated, Gogo apparently was willing to take over the position.

    Yuhei Tanaka is seen next to a photo of Norifumi Gogo, with snacks and other items offered to him, in Kitakyushu's Kokurakita Ward on April 21, 2021. The two were friends in university and worked together at the nonprofit organization Bloom. (Mainichi/Emi Aoki)

    With the enforcement of the Services and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act in 2013, home-visit nursing care services for those with severe disabilities were expanded, among other systems to support the lives of people with disabilities. Under such circumstances, Gogo thought about how to create a system for the independence of individuals with disabilities, and set out to review the situation at the time.

    Bloom's helper dispatch business was one such service that was reviewed. Up until then, multiple helpers took turns assisting one person, but this has been changed to a one-to-one exclusive operation. The content also puts emphasis on the independence of users by limiting the assistance to only what they asked the helpers to do.

    Some of the users who were accustomed to the conventional support system opposed the change and stopped using Bloom's services. Securing a dedicated caregiver also increased labor costs, which affected the NPO's operation. Even so, Gogo did not give up, saying "the mindset of being taken care of by a helper does not lead to true equality."

    Gogo's greeting note as a Bloom representative reads, "Living independently is not about doing everything yourself, but playing a role in society while receiving necessary support."

    The Kitakyushu-based general incorporated association Ikikata no Design Kenkyujyo actively undertook training services at companies and schools in order to broaden people's understanding of disabilities. Representative director Shoko Toyama recalled, "Scripts for school classes were written by Gogo, and they included problems that people with disabilities, regardless of the type such as sight and hearing impairment, experienced in their lives, and the children's reactions were great."

    Gogo served as a standing committee member of a council that consists of more than 100 independent living centers nationwide, and supported the establishment of a new group in Nagasaki and Saga prefectures, which had lacked such centers. He also gave advice on management.

    Shigeto Itani, 42, from the city of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, who is also a standing committee member and knew Gogo, said, "He was speaking and acting with the intention of really improving society, and there were many things I could learn from him."

    Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the funeral for Gogo was limited to a small group of attendees including Tanaka, but flowers arrived from people across Japan who he had worked with. That surprised Gogo's parents, who realized "he was doing a great job."

    During an extraordinary general meeting of Bloom in mid-April, Tanaka became the succeeding representative. A lecture that Gogo had been giving to students at a special needs high school for around five years will be continued this fiscal year.

    Tanaka is prepared to pass on to the students the will of Gogo, who had also written in the greeting note as a Bloom representative: "Please realize that you have many wonderful qualities even if you have disabilities."

    (Japanese original by Emi Aoki and Akiho Narimatsu, Kyushu News Department)

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