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Friday, July 26, 2002



Breaking down people's mental barriers


Joannah Peterson was a bright, attractive, typical 14-year-old when the accident occurred. In the car with her were her older brother and a cousin. Both escaped with minor injuries, but for Peterson, the story was different.

News photo
Joannah Peterson, who enjoys sculpture herself, spends time with the sculpture students at Miyagino High School.

After one month in hospital and three months of rehabilitation at the Shepards Spinal Center in Atlanta, Ga., she went back home to Glasgow, Ky. She was paralyzed from the waist down.

Returning to school in a wheelchair, she found some of her friends distancing themselves from her. They were unable to accept her physical disability. For Peterson, however, her experiences had given her a new strength and perspective on life.

"Before the accident, I, too, felt uncomfortable around people in wheelchairs," Peterson admits. "They seemed uncool. But I quickly learned to look at people first and their wheelchairs second."

This month Peterson finishes her second year on the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. Working as an assistant language teacher at Sendai's Miyagino High School, she has been active in increasing awareness among people in Miyagi Prefecture about the lives of the physically challenged. Besides her English-language classes, Peterson regularly visits schools and community groups to talk about her own experiences.

"My psychology teacher in college told me that the best way to break stereotypes is to make friends with someone who is being typecast," Peterson explains. Coming to Japan on the JET program, Peterson says, she hoped that Japanese people would make friends with her and find her a startling departure from the stereotype of a disabled person.

Peterson's initial interest in Japan was kindled by the Asian exchange students she befriended while an undergraduate psychology major at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

"I was impressed by their way of relating to each other," Peterson explains. "In their relationships, they were more gentle and considerate than what I was used to, growing up in the United States. This Asian sensibility attracted me."

It was the popular Japanese television series "Beautiful Life," starring the mega-idol and SMAP singer Takuya Kimura who falls in love with a woman in a wheelchair, that inspired Peterson to live in Japan. Her Japanese boyfriend at the time often talked about how the TV series was changing Japanese people's attitudes toward the physically disabled.

"I saw the JET program as an opportunity to be part of this cultural movement toward a barrier-free society," Peterson adds.

When she came to Miyagino, one of five barrier-free schools in Miyagi Prefecture, her first encounters with the students were not easy. Many of the children were afraid of her, she says, and just sat with their heads down in class, unable to look at her.

"My goal was to be friends with them and as I'm an outgoing person by nature, I began to find common ground with the students," Peterson explains. "Now we've become friends and the kids frequently come to the teachers' room to chat."

On the day of this interview, three wheelchair-bound students from the local junior high school were visiting Peterson. She was impressed to find her regular students in the hallway chatting with them. "They were getting along in a very natural way. For me, these little things show me that I've made a difference in my time here in Japan," Peterson says.

The school's vice principal, Undo Sasaki, adds: "We had our initial concerns about how Joannah would get along at our school. But after working with her, it is clear that she works and gets around just like the rest of us. To see her as different is to lose sight of the gift she has to offer."

Peterson is one of several physically disabled participants on the JET program. One of the concerns that institutions face when hosting a physically disabled JET is organizing suitable working and living conditions. In Peterson's case, her vice principal asked around and found a barrier-free apartment within a short driving distance of the school. With financial support from International Soroptomist Miyagi and International Soroptomist Iris, two local nongovernmental organizations devoted to empowering women, Peterson was able to buy a customized automobile to commute to work and meet her daily needs.

"I drive everywhere in my car, even to Tokyo to visit friends and go shopping," says Peterson. "A car has been essential for getting around in Japan, since much of the country is still catching on to the need to create a barrier-free society.

"While most major train stations, supermarkets and department stores are now barrier-free, my greatest obstacle has been going out to eat with friends and having to negotiate restaurant toilets," Peterson says.

How has Peterson's life changed during her two years in Japan? "My landlord's mother is a tea-ceremony teacher and physically disabled due to her old age. She uses a specially designed tea ceremony table that enables her to easily prepare tea. When I first tried tea ceremony, I found the whole experience boring. After a while, however, I noticed myself beginning to feel things in a new and more subtle way. I became more aware of the sound of water, the smell of tea, the changes in the seasons. The details of day-to-day life took on a special quality, and this quiet sensibility is something that I will take home with me."

Joannah Peterson returns this month to the United States to prepare for graduate studies in psychology.

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