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Sunday, Nov. 18, 2001

The long road to a barrier-free Japan

Staff writer

Compact size. Lightweight. High-speed. Extra new features. Appealing design. Competitive price. Manufacturers have long focused on criteria like these in their quest for successful product lines. In the single-minded pursuit of profits, though, consumers unable to adapt themselves to standardized products for reasons of age or disability have generally been left out of the marketing equation altogether.

News photo
Narrow horizons may threaten wheelchair users in Tokyo.

However, after a little-noticed meeting in London last August, all this may be about to change. There, after three years of discussion, the Technical Management Board of the Swiss-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) finally adopted "Guide 71," an international standard for designing goods and services to meet the needs of the elderly and disabled.

One of the driving forces in those discussions, and a proponent of the new ISO guideline, was 44-year-old Yasuyuki Hoshikawa, who declared himself deeply moved by the decision, although he sees it as "only a first step forward."

For Hoshikawa, the route to that meeting in London began 20 years ago, when as a day-center volunteer during his senior year at university, he often spent time playing with children with disabilities. One day, he heard a staffer say: "I wish we could give these kids toys made for them." Later, when he joined a major toy manufacturer, he began developing toys that all children -- including those with impaired eyesight and other disabilities -- could play with together.

Ever since then, Hoshikawa's career has revolved around promoting the movement toward kyoyo-hin, or goods and services with "accessible design" that is user-friendly to all, including the elderly and disabled.

"We have formerly tried to create goods with accessible design simply by redesigning or remodeling existing items," says Hoshikawa, who is now secretary-general of the Tokyo-based Kyoyo-Hin Foundation. "But with the introduction of the ISO's Guide 71, we developers and designers will be required to create goods considering the needs of the elderly and the disabled from the very beginning."

Although this may seem like financial common sense now, with Japan's rapidly greying population forming a huge potential market, 20 years ago proponents of accessible design such as Hoshikawa had to argue hard that it made economic sense to weave the idea of "accessible for all" into each product from inception.

Encouraging responses

Hoshikawa and his colleagues started out small, for example, by designing protrusions on the reverse side of the pieces for the Othello board game so that blind children could play by "seeing" with their fingers.

In 1990, their efforts and those of others bore significant fruit when the Japan Toy Association set a guideline to promote accessible toys for children with impaired eyesight. As a result, there are now about 200 different toys made by 25 companies, bearing a guide dog's face on the package, indicating they are accessible to all.

"But not all problems are easily solved, because users' disabilities vary," says Hoshikawa. "Maybe in the future, we will make use of sounds and other devices." However, he's also pleased to report encouraging user responses. "One mother said, for instance, that when she found one of our toys at a store, she felt like her child had been recognized as a member of society."

The ISO's move is not the only indication that Hoshikawa is no lone voice in the wilderness. Parallel to kyoyo-hin, growing attention is now also being paid to "universal design," a concept that emerged in the 1990s chiefly following on the work of Ronald Mace, former director of the Center for Universal Design at the University of North Carolina's School of Design. Defined as design to suit the needs of all groups of people equally, this concept, too, is increasingly being adopted as society moves toward creating a "barrier-free" world.

In fact "barrier-free" was originally an architectural term, meaning few physical obstacles for the elderly and the disabled, such as steps in a house. Now, it has come to refer to all kinds of barriers that cause inconvenience in such people's daily lives.

As the kyoyo-hin movement continues to develop, it has now come to involve 11 industry groups, from the Brewers Association of Japan to the Association for Electric Home Appliances and the Japan Cosmetic Industry Association.

As a result, the range of accessible items has now widened from telephones with a tiny raised dot on the numeral 5, and pre-paid cards with a notch at the bottom, to beer cans with the word "beer" in Braille on the top, and cassette recorders with enlarged and simplified switches. As well, a leading household-goods maker has begun selling its shampoos in bottles with an uneven surface, in order to distinguish them from conditioner.

In the latest move, from next month, milk cartons will have a tiny cut on the top so that visually-impaired people can distinguish them from other drinks in cartons.

With these and other developments, Japan's total market for kyoyo-hin goods and services has grown dramatically in the past five years, from 486.9 billion yen in fiscal 1995 to 1.85 trillion yen in fiscal 1999.

Welcoming these figures, Hoshikawa adds, "Promoting such products cannot be achieved only by one maker, and making the idea understood and shared by profit-oriented enterprises is the most important and difficult part of all."

Yet the message is now getting through even to automakers, whose industry has historically led the field in mass-production of standardized models. Recently, they have begun designing and marketing more vehicles specifically suitable for senior citizens and the disabled, such as cars equipped with devices to help wheelchair-users get in and out more easily. According to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, sales of such vehicles are rising fast, with domestic makers reporting 29,005 sold between April 2000 and March 2001 -- a 19.3 percent increase year-on-year.

Further evidence that the barrier-free trend is growing markedly in Japan came at the International Home Care and Rehabilitation Exhibition 2001 held over two days at Tokyo Big Sight last month. There, a record 553 domestic companies exhibited products designed to be used by the elderly and the disabled in the huge fair subtitled, "From a spoon to an automobile," which attracted a record 134,000 visitors.

Pressing demographics

"Five years ago, we had 200 participating companies," said Tadahiko Omoto of the Health and Welfare Information Association, which organized the fair. "It seems so-called barrier-free products are no longer regarded by manufacturers as special merchandise."

To the more hard-headed, of course, this may come as no surprise, since Japan leads the world for the rate at which its population is aging. Last year, in fact, the number of people aged 65 and older reached an estimated 22 million, or 17.2 percent of the population, compared with 4.16 million (4.9 percent) in 1950, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. By 2015, one in four Japanese will be 65 or older.

Added to this, other potential barrier-free beneficiaries are the nation's estimated 2.93 million disabled people, including some 1.66 million with limb disabilities, 300,000 officially classified as having impaired eyesight and 350,000 with hearing or speech disorders, according to the ministry.

Despite such pressing demographics, however, throughout the postwar period the government has focused its policies primarily on promoting output and efficiency in pursuit of economic growth, and has generally been slow to move on barrier-free projects.

As a result, on the infrastructure side, it was only in November last year that a law covering barrier-free transportation took effect, requiring public transport operators to take measures to make their facilities more user-friendly for the elderly and the disabled.

At present, about 30 percent of the nation's rail stations used by 5,000 or more passengers a day are equipped with at least one elevator, and 48 percent have at least one escalator, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. However, by 2010, the national government aims to install elevators or escalators, set up lavatory booths for people in wheelchairs and pave Braille-block navigation tiles for the blind at all railway stations, bus terminals, ports and airports with 5,000 or more daily users.

But installing more elevators and escalators at railway stations will go only a small way toward creating a truly barrier-free society.

Like Hoshikawa of the Kyoyo-Hin Foundation, Makoto Nakazawa, who runs the Barrier Free Company in the Toranomon district of Tokyo's Minato Ward, also believes that a barrier-free society will only be realized when all civic and social facilities can be, and are, used routinely both by those with disabilities and by senior citizens.

For that purpose, Nakazawa, who himself has difficulty walking, organizes various events in which senior citizens, the disabled and others can participate together. He also provides travel companies with advice on designing tours both at home and overseas that are suitable for the elderly and the disabled, and he has also led a volunteer group to compile a bilingual Tokyo guidebook especially for disabled visitors.

"I must say that the infrastructure and services in the city are still very insufficient for people in wheelchairs. We need, for example, to have more taxis fitted with a lift," Nakazawa says. "But at the same time, we need to try to eliminate psychological barriers in society by giving the general public the opportunity to see people in wheelchairs on the streets and using the city's facilities together with them."

Even if the current infrastructure is still far from barrier-free, wheelchair-bound people can move about and avail themselves of public facilities if they receive only a little support from people around them, Nakazawa says. Also, he believes that if senior citizens and those with disabilities become more visible users, this will increase pressure to make those facilities more user-friendly.

Such a step would certainly benefit the disabled and infirm, but it would also ease the way for many more -- from carers for the elderly, to the injured on crutches, asthmatics, pregnant women and parents with small children.

Hoshikawa's opinion -- though it may seem paradoxical, since he devotes himself to promoting barrier-free goods -- is that true success will come only when the idea of "accessible design" disappears altogether.

If that happens, it will be because its ideals have crossed over into the mainstream, when what is now viewed as a concession to the minority is instead recognized as making life that little bit easier for us all.

"I hope the uneven surface of the shampoo bottle will be a common design," he says. "And I hope terms like 'barrier-free design' will eventually fade out altogether."

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