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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Disabled fear loss of independence


Disabled people on public welfare are railing against the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's plan to step up pressure on their close relatives to provide greater financial support.

For many disabled living on welfare, public assistance is an essential way of living independently, experts say, and various support groups are petitioning against the ministry's move.

The outcry followed a remark by welfare minister Yoko Komiyama in late May that he would consider changing the public assistance law to require relatives of welfare recipients to prove their inability to provide support.

The move came as a response to a scandal in which a highly paid TV personality had to publicly apologize after it was reported that his mother was receiving welfare benefits.

Norio Suzuki, who suffers from cerebral palsy and needs daily assistance, expressed concern that the new measure would see society revert back to the bad old days, when the burden of supporting disabled relatives often resulted in families splitting apart in the end.

The 48-year-old Suzuki first applied for welfare 16 years ago when he decided to start living independently, as he realized that parental support would eventually cease to be an option as his mother and father grew older.

During the application process, the municipal welfare office asked his parents if they intended to continue supporting him. Though they still had the financial means, they declared that they would end their support to respect their son's decision. Suzuki said this was the key factor that saw his application approved.

Suzuki, who works at a nonprofit organization in Tokyo, the Center for Independent Living Hands Setagaya, currently receives about ¥110,000 in welfare benefits and about ¥82,000 in disability pension payments a month. Without this assistance, he said it would be impossible to continue living on his own.

In a similar case, a 42-year-old woman who became paralyzed from the waist down 14 years ago and requires round-the-clock assistance from helpers said she fears that more stringent checks on beneficiaries' relatives would result in authorities contacting her parents, with whom she has avoided contact for decades because they abused her as a child.

The woman, who lives alone in Tokyo, began receiving welfare two years ago after a divorce left her virtually bankrupt. "Ever since I heard Komiyama's remarks, I cannot help but worry every day," she said.

Most disabled people used to either live with family members or in large care facilities, according to Satoru Misawa, head of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples International.

But since around 1981, designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Disabled Persons, campaigns to support more independent lifestyles have gained momentum and many disabled people have begun living on their own, Misawa said.

However, a lack of employment opportunities and insufficient disability pensions means "welfare benefits have been playing an important role in securing their independence," he added.

Of the total number of households on welfare in fiscal 2010, 11 percent, or about 157,000 homes, were categorized as including disabled persons — the third-largest group after the elderly at 43 percent and the sick and injured at 22 percent, and ahead of single-parent households.

Atsushi Yoshinaga, a professor at Hanazono University in Kyoto who has experience as a caseworker, said welfare is not only indispensable for disabled people but for all individuals seeking to live independently.

"In most Western countries, the obligation of support is not imposed on the parents of grownups," Yoshinaga said. "Emphasizing parents' obligation to provide support forces the disabled to remain permanently dependent and hinders their right to live in the community" independently.

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