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Northeast Japan city boosts road snow clearing efforts to help visually impaired people

MORIOKA -- This northeastern Japan city government has taken steps this winter to increase its snow removal efforts so that visually impaired people can walk safely on the streets, as the season of dangerous snowy roads has fully begun.

    "When there is snow on the Braille blocks, it becomes difficult to feel them with the soles of my feet," said Hiroshi Takahashi, left, a teacher at Iwate Prefectural Morioka School for the Blind in Morioka, on Dec. 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Ikuko Ando)

    The Iwate Prefecture city of Morioka's general rule is to remove snow when over 10 centimeters of it has accumulated on streets, but it has been tightened to 5 centimeters on a trial basis on city roads around the prefectural Morioka School for the Blind.

    When three teachers with visual impairments showed a Mainichi Shimbun reporter around the school, the difficulty of walking in the snow became apparent.

    "When the snow hides the Braille blocks, I can't walk straight. I don't know which direction I'm facing, and it's like I'm lost," is how teacher Takahisa Sonobe, 44, described his commute this season.

    Sonobe walks while feeling the Braille paving with the soles of his feet, and on his way to work, he uses his white cane to touch the fences and other targets he has set for himself. When all these things he relies on get covered with snow, the condition of the route to school that he is used to walking changes drastically.

    Another teacher, Hiroshi Takahashi, 52, said, "Some of the roads on my commuting route don't have Braille blocks, so I walk holding my breath and clenching my teeth because I'm so nervous."

    Takahashi said that if you see a person with a disability having trouble, such as moving back and forth from side to side while holding a white cane, please call out to them. "Even if the road is icy, we can't avoid it. We feel relieved when people just speak to us," he continued.

    The Morioka Municipal Government outsources the removal of snow from vehicular roads and sidewalks to contractors, and when the snowfall exceeds the limit, they are dispatched. However, even if the snow accumulation is less than 10 centimeters, it is still dangerous for people with visual impairments, so locals and school staff shovel the snow and spread snow-melting agents on the way to school from the dormitory where the students live.

    A city official said, " If there is not much snow, the snowblower may not be able to remove it. This season, we will see if it is possible to remove even 5 centimeters of snow and then consider whether to expand the practice to the entire city."

    Another teacher, Ghimire Kshitij, 49, was grateful for the tougher measures, but said, "Some students commute from stations and bus stops far from the school. I hope the city government will expand the areas where the rules are stricter."

    (Japanese original by Ikuko Ando, Morioka Bureau)

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