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FEATURE: Japan struggling to ramp up accessibility efforts ahead of Paralympics

  • June 2, 2019
  • , Kyodo News , 10:15 a.m.
  • English Press

A shortage of wheelchair-accessible hotel rooms remains an issue for Tokyo 2020 organizers who say they are committed to using the Paralympic Games to make Japan a more inclusive place.


As the clock ticks down to the Aug. 25, 2020, Paralympic opening ceremony, the Tokyo metropolitan government admits that by its own estimations it is still about 300 rooms short of the projected 850 accessible rooms needed each night during the two-week sporting festival.


“We’re nowhere near the number. There’s no denying that we’re behind schedule,” said a representative of a Japanese disability organization.


In April, the Guardian reported that British Paralympic officials were “left stunned” when hotels in Yokohama, a city very near Tokyo, were uncooperative in accommodating the needs of wheelchair athletes, demanding payment to make the rooms accessible.


According to the British newspaper, hotels near the team’s training camp for the 2020 Paralympics said they would charge extra for construction to make the rooms accessible, and demanded that they pay again to convert the rooms back after the games.


“How embarrassing. Come on, Japan,” Japanese Paralympic swimmer Mei Ichinose tweeted in response to the story.


The report caused a social media uproar with people questioning the country’s commitment both to the Paralympic Movement and to following through on its pledge to promote social inclusion.


A public relations officer from the hotel in question declined to disclose details of the requests by the British Paralympic team, but said they were wide-ranging and if the hotel was to implement all of them, it would cost “an astonishing sum of money.”


A British Paralympic source, who requested anonymity, told Kyodo News that the conflict has been resolved. However, the source expressed concerns over not just the insufficient supply of accessible rooms in Tokyo, but how the city might squander the chance to reap the economic and reputational benefits that come from hosting a welcoming Paralympics.


In April, the city of Yokohama started offering financial assistance to accommodation facilities with at least 1,000 square meters of total floor space in the form of a subsidy should they be refurbished to meet the requirements of the barrier-free ordinance.


Yokohama City authorities eventually agreed to pay for the accessibility modifications for the British Paralympians through the fund, in which the city will cover up to half the renovation costs up to a cap of 20 million yen ($184,000).


The Yokohama city official in charge said, “It’s true the British Paralympic team case was one of the reasons that spurred (the creation of the subsidy program).”


Despite the pressure to fast-track preparations, Hiroshi Ichihashi, a vice chairman of the National Conference to Support the Life and Right of Disabled Persons, says the focus should be more on quality than speed.


“A quick fix could mean the facility is technically barrier-free, but there’s the fear that it could be inconvenient for guests,” Ichihashi said.


International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons, who visited Tokyo in May, said there are hotels in central Tokyo with accessible guest rooms, and he has seen access improvements among existing facilities.


“Everyone knows we have the issue of accessibility when it comes to hotel rooms in Japan, and the number of accessible rooms in hotels…But we are working with the Tokyo metropolitan government, we are working with Tokyo 2020,” said Parsons.


“(People with impairments) do travel, so it’s important that they have accessible accommodation. An expected legacy from the Tokyo Games will be to improve this area. We are working…to face the challenge and find solutions, positive solutions,” he said.

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