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Liz Carr

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Liz is a crip activist and actor, now trying to gain experience as a stand-up comedian. Originally from the North West, she recently moved to London, lured by the bright lights and the promise of fame and fortune. She's still waiting.

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The Accessible Land of the Rising Sun

3rd June 2009

I’ve just returned from a trip to Japan. Most tourists who travel all that way go there to see the cherry blossoms, the sumo or the sushi. But not me.
Liz Carr in Japan, trying out eating with chopsticks
Liz Carr in Japan, trying out eating with chopsticks      
My number one reason for visiting the country was to ride on a wheelchair accessible escalator. I don't mean some special 'crip only' contraption, nor being tipped back and balanced precariously on the steps of a normal one, but instead the kind of escalator where wheelchair users can travel alongside everyone else. I don't recall where I first heard about their existence; maybe these magical moving marvels were the stuff of imagination or perhaps an accessible urban myth I'd once heard? I decided to visit Japan to find out the truth.

On arrival, what I actually discovered was that Japan is without question one of the most crip-friendly countries that I've ever visited. Every pavement had a slope for wheelies and raised markings to assist blind people. I saw disabled people of all ages and impairments going about their everyday lives. People even stared less at me in Japan than they do in the UK.
Priority seats on the Tokyo underground, with symbols of disabled people in the upholstery pattern
Priority seats on the Tokyo underground, with symbols      
of disabled people in the upholstery pattern      
Some things, however, are the same the world over. In a twist on the traditional 'does she take sugar?' syndrome, where the carer is spoken to instead of the disabled person, in Japan people would often speak to me in pigeon English but to my PA in fluent Japanese.

My guidebook had warned me that the toilets in Japan were the dreaded hole in the ground type, so I arrived prepared to do my own unique version of the crouching tiger hidden dragon. In reality, however, the crip toilets were not only of normal height, but the rooms themselves were huge with a fold down changing bed and every public convenience mod con you could ever dream of.
One of the fully accessible Japanese toilets that so impressed Liz Carr
One of the fully accessible Japanese      
toilets that so impressed Liz Carr      
In a country known for its technological innovation, it's perhaps no surprise that the accessible toilets look like 'emission control' on the Starship Enterprise. Enter via the automatic doors and the lights go on without you having to lift a finger. Sit and the toilet seat warms to a temperature of your choosing. Press a button and a loud flushing sound drowns out the noise from your nether regions. Press another button to release a 'powerful deodoriser' to kill any nasty niffs. And then, after you've done your thing, you can be douched, sluiced, buffed and blow dried down below. All this and you don't even need one of those RADAR keys that we use in the UK to get into locked public toilets. In comparison, our accessible loos seem almost embarrassingly primitive with their basic flush, misplaced grab-rail, orange emergency pull cord and little else.
I eventually left the comfort of the toilet and continued my search for an accessible escalator by taking the train to Tokyo. The Japanese rail system is renowned for its efficiency and speed, but after my experience, it should also be renowned for its accessibility. When I arrived at a rail station, and even if I hadn’t booked in advance (I know, shock horror!), a member of staff in a smart navy uniform and wearing white gloves would escort us to our train and provide ramped access for even the smallest of steps. Every lift worked (and didn't smell of wee either); every station was well signposted and had Braille maps; every train had designated boarding areas and seating for wheelchair users and other priority passengers such as older people, pregnant women, those with young children and people with other impairments. In fact, every journey was accessible from beginning to end.
Braille maps for passengers on Japan's rail network
Braille maps for passengers on Japan's rail network      
There were, however, some aspects of Japanese culture which I personally found a little inaccessible. As someone who doesn't really bend in the middle, I had slight problems with all the shoe removing, sitting on the floor and sleeping on a futon that is traditional in Japan. And then there's the small matter of eating with chopsticks. I watched in awe as those experienced in the ways of the wooden utensils used them to spread butter, eat yoghurt and pick up a grain of rice. By propping up my right hand with my left, I could only manage to eat by using the chopsticks to spear my food. Thankfully I'd smuggled a knife and fork through Customs and left my PA to fend for herself at mealtimes.

My search for the almost mythical accessible escalator finally came to an end just before we headed home. It was in the Tokyo Big Sight Exhibition Centre. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, in that none of the staff knew it existed and no one had actually used it before my visit. My dream of disabled and non-disabled people riding side by side on an escalator in perfect harmony was dashed - but since I was here, I still wanted to have a go.
A delighted Liz finally gets her ride on the wheelchair accessible escalator in Tokyo
A delighted Liz finally gets her ride on the      
wheelchair accessible escalator in Tokyo      
In a Jim’ll Fix It kind of way, seven assorted staff gathered to work out how to operate it and make all my escalator wishes come true. It turned out that all they had to do was push a button, then three of the normal steps became a platform. I wheeled on and down we went, but it was all over far too quickly. I had to do it again, just to convince myself that it was really that easy. Then I did it again. And again. And all afternoon. It was even better than the Starship Enterprise toilets, and I would probably still be there now if we hadn't had a plane to catch ...

Comments

    • 1. At 3:12pm on 03 Jun 2009, Lisy wrote:

      Someone should tell the London Underground about accessible escalators. That'd stop them with the old "but there are some stations that we just *can't* make accessible."

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    • 2. At 06:40am on 05 Jun 2009, elizabethmcclung wrote:

      I am curious if you went to Japan, or to Tokyo, Japan? I went to Japan for 18 days, and while Tokyo is the most wheelchair friendly city in Japan, if you didn't go to Shinjuko (sic) station, the busiest in the world and 'elevator number 8' doesn't mean anything then I am curious about your experiences (it is the only elevator which goes up to the platforms, the only one out of all 16 platforms, regardless if you need to go down, and must go up and then over). I agree that the 'JR Men' (since there are no JR women who wear the white gloves that I saw and the manga Train Train actually covers this fact), are a great help, and also a great hinderance when for instance they stop you from taking a train because 'the official ramp has not arrived' - your experiences outside of Tokyo would be of great interest, as well as how you managed to get through the hordes of people at the wheelchair exit/enter which also happens to be the 'information counter' and often requires an extended wait. "Chotto Matte" - that is another Japanese experience which cannot be missed.

      I did however use; a platform beside the escalator which went up, and open elevator beside the platform which went up, a stair climber (Kyoto), a requirement to come back another day or drag myself with my arms up all the stairs and down the other side (Nikko), Having my wheelchair taken away (Kanaya), being told that I needed a keeper and outside Tokyo it was not believed one has seen a person in a wheelchair without one (Kanaya), spent an hour trying to leave a station without success (Tokyo), receiving help from a stranger (Tokyo and many other places). While there are lines on the ground for the blind, that is because blindness is historically respected in Japan. The same accomodation simply isn't true for wheelchair where a wheelchair accessible room may for example have a step of almost two feet up (Hiroshima), or to find a Onsen which is assessible you may be required to hire a taxi to take you completely out of the town (Beppu - actually wheelchair friendly as it is known for the wheelchair race there annually). Coming out of an elevator to be locked in to a series of posts (Tokyo), with no one coming. Required to wheel a half mile to use the 'alternate entrance' and get a ticket only to be viewed by camera (Kyoto), be assumed that as you are by yourself you have need to be rescued (about 4-5 times a day including when some people tried to put me inside a taxi in a rural northern city while my partner toured a Samurai House). To be required to crawl or drag myself in a Museum because my wheelchair was like shoes, and 'dirty' (Kyoto).

      It is possible to go to Japan and with help from the Japanese disability organizations have a great time, but it will come with some times of great frustration (like being asked 5 times a day at least by JR officials 'You walk now?" - no, actually this wheelchair isn't an accessory like the earrings), but also some of great joy. I have also been carried up 150 stairs by 4 individuals, and had strangers from around the world help to take me up the slopes of the Himeji Castle (world heritage site and listed as accessible, but at the enterance the woman said, "You cannot go up with such a small group to push you" - I was to learn what that meant! But then, in a Kyoto castle, not being able to use your wheelchair (becuase it is outside at dirty) but having another wheelchair for your to transfer into just for the trip. Being told that three inches of gravel is 'accessible'. I went to 7 of the 9 world heritage sites and I would go again but Japan is often listed as one of the most unaccessible western countries for a reason (try visiting the different houses in Kobe!), it can be a wonderful experience, with a few months of planning and learning to speak some Japanese ("Kaidan?" which means "many stairs?" is pretty important. Along with saying, "barrier free" - which means 'Wheelchair accessible'. And "eei" which means, "Um no but I am about to jump this gap here whether you get out of my way or not" to "Actually, I am going to keep going until I find stairs and then I am going to get out and drag myself, thanks!") - most shrines have a verticle slope for people who work there to drive up and park - it isn't advertised but for power chairs this is a good option, for manuals, um, if you have arms of steel....

      But I do have to visit this amazing place where there wasn't a 8 inch step to get into store and no one stared. Even in Tokyo, and even during Sakura, while many where entirely helpful I was not exactly 'blending in' Nor could I say that "I actually discovered was that Japan is without question one of the most crip-friendly countries that I've ever visited." - when many Japanese wheelchair users leave the country so as to have accessible lives. This is eloquently described in many blogs, and publications. However, if you go only to certain destinations within the larger cities of Tokyo and um.....Kyoto, that can be part of an experience.

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    • 3. At 06:52am on 05 Jun 2009, elizabethmcclung wrote:

      I am curious if you went to Japan, or to Tokyo, Japan? I went to Japan for 18 days, and while Tokyo is the most wheelchair friendly city in Japan, if you didn't go to Shinjuko (sic) station, the busiest in the world and 'elevator number 8' doesn't mean anything then I am curious about your experiences (it is the only elevator which goes up to the platforms, the only one out of all 16 platforms, regardless if you need to go down, and must go up and then over). I agree that the 'JR Men' (since there are no JR women who wear the white gloves that I saw and the manga Train Train actually covers this fact), are a great help, and also a great hinderance when for instance they stop you from taking a train because 'the official ramp has not arrived' - your experiences outside of Tokyo would be of great interest, as well as how you managed to get through the hordes of people at the wheelchair exit/enter which also happens to be the 'information counter' and often requires an extended wait. "Chotto Matte" - that is another Japanese experience which cannot be missed.

      I did however use; a platform beside the escalator which went up, and open elevator beside the platform which went up, a stair climber (Kyoto), a requirement to come back another day or drag myself with my arms up all the stairs and down the other side (Nikko), Having my wheelchair taken away (Kanaya), being told that I needed a keeper and outside Tokyo it was not believed one has seen a person in a wheelchair without one (Kanaya), spent an hour trying to leave a station without success (Tokyo), receiving help from a stranger (Tokyo and many other places). While there are lines on the ground for the blind, that is because blindness is historically respected in Japan. The same accomodation simply isn't true for wheelchair where a wheelchair accessible room may for example have a step of almost two feet up (Hiroshima), or to find a Onsen which is assessible you may be required to hire a taxi to take you completely out of the town (Beppu - actually wheelchair friendly as it is known for the wheelchair race there annually). Coming out of an elevator to be locked in to a series of posts (Tokyo), with no one coming. Required to wheel a half mile to use the 'alternate entrance' and get a ticket only to be viewed by camera (Kyoto), be assumed that as you are by yourself you have need to be rescued (about 4-5 times a day including when some people tried to put me inside a taxi in a rural northern city while my partner toured a Samurai House). To be required to crawl or drag myself in a Museum because my wheelchair was like shoes, and 'dirty' (Kyoto).

      It is possible to go to Japan and with help from the Japanese disability organizations have a great time, but it will come with some times of great frustration (like being asked 5 times a day at least by JR officials 'You walk now?" - no, actually this wheelchair isn't an accessory like the earrings), but also some of great joy. I have also been carried up 150 stairs by 4 individuals, and had strangers from around the world help to take me up the slopes of the Himeji Castle (world heritage site and listed as accessible, but at the enterance the woman said, "You cannot go up with such a small group to push you" - I was to learn what that meant! But then, in a Kyoto castle, not being able to use your wheelchair (becuase it is outside at dirty) but having another wheelchair for your to transfer into just for the trip. Being told that three inches of gravel is 'accessible'. I went to 7 of the 9 world heritage sites and I would go again but Japan is often listed as one of the most unaccessible western countries for a reason (try visiting the different houses in Kobe!), it can be a wonderful experience, with a few months of planning and learning to speak some Japanese ("Kaidan?" which means "many stairs?" is pretty important. Along with saying, "barrier free" - which means 'Wheelchair accessible'. And "eei" which means, "Um no but I am about to jump this gap here whether you get out of my way or not" to "Actually, I am going to keep going until I find stairs and then I am going to get out and drag myself, thanks!") - most shrines have a verticle slope for people who work there to drive up and park - it isn't advertised but for power chairs this is a good option, for manuals, um, if you have arms of steel....

      But I do have to visit this amazing place where there wasn't a 8 inch step to get into store and no one stared. Even in Tokyo, and even during Sakura, while many where entirely helpful I was not exactly 'blending in' Nor could I say that "I actually discovered was that Japan is without question one of the most crip-friendly countries that I've ever visited." - when many Japanese wheelchair users leave the country so as to have accessible lives. This is eloquently described in many blogs, and publications. However, if you go only to certain destinations within the larger cities of Tokyo and um.....Kyoto, that can be part of an experience.

      Complain about this comment

    • 4. At 09:05am on 05 Jun 2009, squeen wrote:

      You should visit Russia now - to feel the contrast with Japan and UK!
      Best wishes from Moscow, Russia

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    • 5. At 00:54am on 09 Jun 2009, feyandstrange wrote:

      Go Liz! I have wanted to travel to Japan, and if you can do it, I can! Can you tell us how you transported your powerchair there, and if you used a power adapter or what? I'm a US powerwheeler, but after the airlines mangled my old chair, I've been afraid to fly with my 'good' chair. Did you send it as cargo?

      They make somewhat more cripple-friendly chopsticks if you look around for them; the ones held together at the top with a springy bit are nice. I bought a set of camper's folding chopsticks and put those gooshy pencil grips on mine. Of course, I consider myself to be better off with chopsticks than with a fork, but they aren't for everyone!

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