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How Asian Disability is Made Invisible

By D’Arcee Neal, Agent of Change

This is the fifth #TheDisabledBlackMagellan blog by Agent of Change, D’Arcee Neal who is a fellow in ECNV’s Ford Foundation Disability Justice Initiative. This year, D’Arcee will share his thoughts and experiences about disability and intersectionality with BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized identities.

So this month I got to check off a very exciting life goal that I have always had in mind when I was able to travel to Tokyo, Japan. For context, I should put out that while I’ve been traveling for close to 20 years now, Japan has always been one of those “you might really like it,” places but I was conflicted. Seeing video after video of police shoving people into the trains, or looking at the very narrow apartments of traditional Japanese dwellings, I was thinking, what would I, as a decidedly averaged-sized person do in a place like that? On the other side, I’ve also heard for years that the Japanese are quite innovative when it comes to the ideas of disability culture, like when my dad told me about a car where the driver’s seat doubles as an electric wheelchair, or how they have escalators that can turn into ramps with a policeman’s key.

I’m here to report that while I didn’t see any transforming escalators (and I’m kinda sad about that) I WILL say that Japan is fascinating in its approach to disability and the culture they have built around it. However, I’ll tie in Thailand too to point out since I’ve spent the majority of this month in Bangkok, how a culture of disability does not mean that it actually helps people. In this way, it is truly insidious how the idea of ableism has warped itself in ways that are unique to Thai and Japanese culture to exclude even as they include, and I got to see it up close and personal first hand.

A person holding a stuffed animal

Traveling through Tokyo, these are pictures of various Pokémon including a graffiti of Mewtwo on the wall, and me hugging Snorlax, posing with my friend Erin in front of Temple torii gates and taking a picture of the mirrored entrance to a fashion mall.

How does this work you ask? A great example is when me and my friend Erin (pictured below) who lives in Tokyo were touring around a Japanese mall when I ran into a coveted legitimate Pokemon Center and squealed in delight. Upon making our way over, I noticed a very long line of people who were standing waiting for the elevator when I saw that there were, in fact, two elevators one of which had an accessible symbol printed on it. But what, might you ask, was the difference? The line of people was actually for the non-accessible elevator, as the disability one was free, virtually unused. WHEN I TELL YOU I COULD’’VE FAINTED ON THE SPOT. Never ever ever in my life have I seen a place where people honor the idea that things for disabled people should be used by them only and it really puts into place the idea that I observed that shows that the culture of respect in Japan is so strong, it allows for empathy where there’s no reason to use it. Japan had ramps galore. Systems built into places to allow mobility, and a fully functional train system that mostly allowed disabled people to travel without incident (when you were paying attention to the RIDICULOUSLY difficult map to go anywhere.) But then if the environment has been made available, why was I still the only person under 60 in a chair no matter where I went? Why did I roll around for a good 45 minutes trying to find anywhere to eat dinner where I could fit? The way ableism works here, it almost functions as an afterthought, like when I enter into a diner with no options aside from chopsticks. Sure, folks will say that’s a cultural distinction, which it is. My response then is, and for people with low or limited hand dexterity (which I have, occasionally) what do we do? Not eat? Why is there an automatic assumption on how folks will consume a basic human need like food? Japan also is unique for its assertiveness for polite culture, demanding quiet rides in public or movement speeds on the street. The public is unpredictable. Needs and bodies are too. Why not include a quiet zone instead of a mandate on conformity?

In this, I compare it to Bangkok. In Bangkok, I found out that the accessibility is nowhere near as good as it is in Japan. City buses? You can forget it. There’s steps in 90% of the locations, and the relative flatness of the city is offset by the high difficulty you’ll have in participating in everyday things. I’m still having to roll in the street. Against Bangkok city traffic which is honestly, the worst I’ve ever seen in my life, because sidewalks here are non-usable. But to my point, amidst all of this, I discovered that the city does in fact have a metro line that is meant to be accessible for wheelchair users. The blue line runs clear through the city and users can take it to any part that they want…except you can’t get to it. I left my Airbnb apartment and drove 25 minutes to get to the closest blue line station to discover that across eight lanes of traffic, there was no conceivable way of getting to the station without putting yourself in serious danger. And this brings me to my point.

A picture of a crowded Tokyo street, compared to a very busy street in Bangkok, Thailand with complex traffic and a crumbling street curb making it inaccessible to chair users.

What good is accessibility if you make it inaccessible to reach? Theater is what I call it. Japan, Thailand, they’re both practicing accessibility theater, or the idea of progressive moves and infrastructure without regard to baseline realities of disability. In many ways, it’s kinda like the way I’ve seen people circling around the issue of transphobia and the Harry Potter series. People who have been saying for years that they’re allies to the cause, but then turn around and spend money on a game because they want to be entertained. By using the theater of queer-allyship, it allows people to make their way into spaces to be heard and to feel important, when the reality of the situation is that they don’t honestly care that much. And you know what? I’ve come to realize that’s fine. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the biggest problem facing racism isn’t the Klan, it’s moderates. And that’s how I see this situation with regards to accessibility.
Thailand wants to promote itself as a liberal progressive city in the Far East, by welcoming tourists of all kinds, but once again, the idea of disability is completely removed. Rolling on the sidewalk for example when I was on my way to get my hair done, before it narrowed and slanted directly into oncoming traffic of a 60mph highway isn’t at all welcoming. The idea of course, is that you simply walk around the slant. In Tokyo, it’s harder to point out, made difficult by the narrow infrastructure of buildings and restaurants that are designed on pre-established permits that dictate space. Owners will tell you, as they did to me, that they can’t make any more room because that was the design of the building before they moved there, and they simply had to make due. That’s true of course, and so I can’t directly blame owners of inaccessible restaurants, hair salons, apartments, stores, hotels, or businesses. So then what else is left? If everything’s made to be inaccessible, then what is left for disabled people to do? When I come to your country for a vacation or to work, then what space is there for me?

Pictures of an inaccessible street stall in Bangkok (up a steep 50 degree curb) and a shot of the cityscape late at night.

I asked a hostess in a bar while I was drinking one night where all the people with disabilities were and she said “they’re at home. Simply.” That’s the answer. Sure. But it’s not the right answer. Not when all I wanted to do was see Ant-Man and to do so required crawling up no kidding some 8 flights of steps in a move my knees are still making me pay for a week later. That said, I give Thailand some credit. I think they understand the limitations of their country and the people here have been the most accommodating of ANY country I think I’ve ever visited in my life. Whenever I need to cross the street, because I don’t trust the craziness of Bangkok traffic, someone somewhere always appears to stop traffic to ensure I can get across safely. Every time I need to crawl up somewhere, whether that’s in a restaurant or in the salon, folks leave their fruit stalls, or come outside and assist. The hair stylist told me, “that’s just what Thai people do. We can’t simply look at someone who needs help and not help. That’s just not how we live.” And I’ve seen that too. But I can’t help but feel for the people who live here, who experience this level of imposed invisibility and not wish better for them.
For chair users in Japan. For blind people in Thailand. For Japanese autistics, and Deaf Thai folks. You all deserve better. You deserve a system that goes beyond simply helping you to a system that sees and advocates for your behalf. For someone, somewhere to remark when another business goes up, and where will “x person” come in? How can we make sure we serve them? For people who want the ability to live a full life and who are denied the right to do so, simply because of where they are born. You deserve to be visible.

A singular shot of a tree hiding the sun at the Japanese temple in the late afternoon.