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Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011

Scooter regulations on Japan's railways face harsh criticism from the mobility challenged

Staff writer

Japan's design and technology industry is often said to be suffering from the "Galapagos syndrome"; meaning, like the Galapagos Islands, which are known for vast numbers of endemic species, its focus is far too insular.

News photo
Masaru Yamana (left), a 68-year-old mobility scooter user, and June Isaacson Kailes, associate director of the Center for Disability and Health Policy at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, explain why tough regulations for scooters on trains makes travel in Japan virtually impossible for people like them. PHOTO COURTESY OF MASARU YAMANA

Now, some people argue the nation's approach toward electric mobility scooters — those used by mobility-challenged seniors and people with disabilities — suffers from the same syndrome. In Japan, regulations regarding such scooters deviate vastly from global standards, and are, in fact, highly discriminatory.

A case in point is a recent incident involving a visiting American scholar.

On Dec. 9, June Isaacson Kailes, a disability policy consultant and associate director of the Center for Disability and Health Policy at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, was surrounded by a dozen Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) officials, when she tried to take her scooter onto a shinkansen (bullet) train to Kyoto. She was visiting Japan to speak at an academic conference in Tokyo and was taking a short sightseeing break.

The officials barred her from taking the train, saying motorized "automated chairs" were not allowed in carriages. Even after she explained that she could get out of the chair by herself in case of emergency, and that the scooter can be wheeled manually, railway officials refused, without giving a sufficient explanation as to why scooters are not allowed on trains.

Kailes, who has taken her scooter to many countries, says she had never experienced a situation like that before.

"This is a scooter that I believe is smaller than many wheelchairs they allow on the train," she later wrote in a statement titled "Disability time travel." "What is their problem here?"

The problem is, in fact, an odd policy crafted by the JR Tokai and the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry (MLIT). The policy severely limits the type of mobility scooter allowed on trains, while there are virtually no restrictions on electric wheelchairs — even though both these vehicles were created for people in need.

"It is shocking and appalling that in this day and age, such a world-class country as Japan, with strong disability rights and independent-living advocates, and a large and growing aging people (with increasing numbers using motorized scooters), allows some of their major rail providers — JR Tokai and JR East (operating local lines in eastern Japan) — to maintain and enforce such archaic and blatantly discriminatory policies and practices," Kailes wrote. "I felt like I had traveled back in time 20 to 30 years!"

JR Tokai, which runs the Tokaido Shinkansen line connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, however, insists that it is only complying with policies compiled by an MLIT-sponsored panel of experts.

"We allow (scooters) on Shinkansen lines when they meet the criteria set forth by the experts' committee," JR Tokai spokesman Masahiro Shinno said. "Regarding the incident on Dec. 9, (the scooter) did not meet the criteria. Based on our mission as a public transportation provider to ensure safe travel of all passengers, we told the passenger that she could not ride with that scooter."

But a close look at the expert panel's report on the use of scooters, released in March 2009, reveals that the criteria are so specific that most of the estimated 420,000 domestic scooter users in Japan — not to mention foreign models used by incoming visitors — are unable to meet them. Scooters are allowed on bullet trains only if they have been provided to the user under the Nursing Insurance Law, or the Service and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act. This means only users who are subsidized by the government for the purchase or rental of their scooters can get on the train. Not only this, but the scooters must also be "improved" models approved by the semigovernmental entity Kotsu Bariafuri Kyogikai (the Corporation Barrier-Free Conference).

So far, only one type of scooter, manufactured by Suzuki Motor Corp., has been certified, according to the entity's officials.

Masaru Yamana, a 68-year-old scooter user, started relying on a Taiwanese model eight years ago after nerve cancer left him without the ability to walk. Yamana, who writes extensively about mobility issues on his blog, said he applied for his model to be certified by the semipublic agency, but the application is still pending, 1 1/2 years later.

The ministry's reluctance seems to stem from the fear that if all of the large number of scooters currently being used in Japan were freely allowed on trains, the stations would become overcrowded. In the nation's first report on allowing scooters onto trains — released in 2003 and compiled by a committee of experts including academics, rail officials, disability rights advocates and MLIT bureaucrats — some committee members expressed concern over the weight of the scooters (more than 100 kg-150 kg, including the weight of the user). Mobility scooters are heavier than electric wheelchairs, and the space they require for making a 360-degree turn is also wider than that of electric wheelchairs. They also cited potential disruptions to "timely and safe transportation" of passengers as a cause of concern.

The report stated that most scooters were being used by seniors (rather than by people with disabilities), and that "if scooters were allowed on trains in the future, many seniors would start using them, causing congestion (problems) and (other) dangers."

Is that a good enough reason to restrict mobility-scooter users access to public transport? Doesn't such an exclusionary stance go against the barrier-free concept, which the nation is supposed to be promoting under the "Act on Promotion of Smooth Transportation, etc. of Elderly Persons, Disabled Persons, etc.," enacted in 2006?

Yosuke Komagata, an MLIT official in charge of technological standards of barrier-free policies, would only say that the 2009 guidelines stipulate the "minimum" access that railway companies should provide to scooter users, noting that the ministry is not "keeping railway companies from voluntarily doing more (to help scooter users)."

With neither the ministry nor JR showing initiative to change the status quo, solutions to the problem are nowhere in sight.

"We've campaigned hard for our access to trains — from the age of manual wheelchairs, which also used to be barred on trains," said Yoshiaki Imafuku, a key member of the Japan National Assembly of the Disabled Peoples' International, the Japan chapter of an international advocacy group for people with disabilities. "And that, we believe, has led to a series of barrier-free legislations." But of the scooter issue; he says, "This is definitely a case of the 'Galapagos syndrome.' "

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