The one phrase every expectant parent seems to utter is, "I don't care if it's a boy or girl, just so it's normal." The odds are good it will be. Perhaps a few babies out of a thousand may be born with some type of severe disability. Milder disabilities discovered later will, of course, multiply that number. Still, only a few parents will experience the challenge of raising a child with greater needs than usual. What can they expect in the way of care, education, training and community attitudes towards them?
Various laws have been passed over the years to provide for the extraordinary needs of the handicapped. According to the Encyclopedia of Special Education, 5% of the population of Japan may be classified as mildly to severely handicapped, including 2.1 million physically handicapped, 400,000 mentally handicapped, and 1 million mentally ill who have received some kind of care. Another 1.5 million have less severe disabling conditions. The government offers some financial assistance to families caring for the disabled at home, depending on severity of condition and family income level.
Since 1979, all the handicapped have been granted the right to free, compulsory education through the lower secondary level. A comparable law was passed in the U.S. in 1975.
Tsukuba is fortunate in being located close to a special school for the mentally handicapped, which covers elementary through high school. The school is tucked into an out-of-the way corner of Tsuchiura, within walking distance of Tsukuba's Sakura New Town housing area. It is attractive, centrally heated and air-conditioned (unlike the regular "spartan" school), with bright rooms for about 8 pupils each. The curriculum basically seems like a simplified version of what regular children learn, with an emphasis on everyday living skills. There seems to be less individualizing of program content to meet each child's unique needs, than I have observed in the U.S.. Instead, there is more of a "group solidarity" approach. High school, for which there is an entrance exam which the teachers try to help everyone to pass, includes some periods of supervised work out in the community. The teachers seem enthusiastic, positive, and genuinely concerned for each student, no matter how "difficult." Here in Japan, teachers must take the place of guidance counselor, social worker, school psychologist, and speech therapist.
Throughout the year, there are several opportunities for the general public, as well as parents, to observe the students' accomplishments and activities, including sports days and festivals. There is also an effort to bring together those from local regular schools with the special school on some occasions.
Nearby is a special school for the blind. Also close to Tsukuba, there is a special school for those with physical and multiple handicaps.
Some parents, however, opt to send their child to the regular neighborhood school. Presumably, they can benefit from normal role models and better fit in within their own community. It seems to be a matter of individual preference as to which course is chosen. Some special classes within the regular schools are offered.
Tsukuba University also offers some help to the handicapped through various programs designed to offer experience to undergraduate and graduate students in relevant fields, such as education and psychology.
Foreigners in Japan now have the "Tokyo International Learning Community," which is described as "an international school for children with special learning needs" in the Tokyo Journal. This has helped to fill a real gap for those living near Tokyo.
After high school, what then? Some of the mentally handicapped go on to jobs in the community. Others enter various homes for the handicapped. Since there are waiting lists for these, parents need to have planned ahead. Still others may attend day programs at local sheltered workshops which offer varied programs of work, recreation, and some community interaction. The trend is for more and more to be cared for at home whenever possible.
What are some of the problems encountered by the disabled? It has been said that handicaps are what society puts in the way of the disabled. So it would seem important to change the attitudes of society. Even in such an "enlightened" scientific center as Tsukuba, misinformation, superstitious beliefs about the causation of such misfortune, and indifference to the plight of others remain, from what I have seen and heard.
On the other hand, there is a gradual recognition in Japan and elsewhere that the disabled are people too, with various rights of mobility, access to stores and public places, education, work and self-fulfillment. They have the same needs for social interaction and self-esteem as the non-disabled. And after all, the non-disabled are only a car accident away from life in a wheelchair, or a stroke away from a life without the power of speech. If the unthinkable happened, how would we wish to be treated?
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