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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 ...

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