Monday March 4, 2013
Getting around on wheels
A Sip of Matcha
By SARAH MORI
Japan’s many disabled-friendly features enable the handicapped to move around independently.
I WAS running late for my appointment at a university hospital. After getting off the subway train, I rushed to take the elevator up to the street. An elementary schoolgirl beat me to it and managed to press the elevator button in time before the doors closed. Her “wheels” were faster than me in my flat heels.
With her mother walking briskly behind her, she rolled her wheelchair onto the sidewalk. They were heading for the university hospital right after school, for her schoolbag was hanging at the back of her wheelchair. She merrily whizzed past many pedestrians.
At another subway station, I witnessed a disabled man taking a little girl (probably his granddaughter) for a jolly free ride. And I meant that literally.
The man propelled his electric wheelchair out of the elevator, while the girl walked beside him. She then sat in between his laps and off they went for a spin. I stood rooted to the spot, watching them with wide-eyed wonder.
While waiting at a hospital lobby, a boy’s wheelchair attracted my attention. The words “custom made” was printed on its side. The wheels were covered with colourful hubcaps depicting animated characters such as Buzz Lightyear and Little Green Men. Aw, cute! Just imagine the kaleidoscope of colours when the wheels spin.
Some disabled and old folk (with weak legs) ride on “senior cars” (electric wheelchair-like scooters). They can ride into buildings like hospitals and supermarkets, and on sidewalks and small roads. Equipped with storage compartments, senior cars help them to do their grocery shopping or run errands.
Curious about senior cars, I went after an elderly man who was riding on one. After striking a conversation with him, I asked: “Do you own this vehicle?”
“No, it was loaned to me through the caregiving system,” he replied.
Several sightseeing spots and parks have ramps and level grounds, enabling wheelchair-users to enjoy the scenery at every season. Many buildings and public toilets are equipped with disabled-friendly facilities. There is even a special lane for wheelchair-users at a busy street near Yokohama station.
While shopping at a street in Yokohama, the staircase of an apartment above a shop stopped me in my tracks. At the top of the stairs was a special seat attached to a railing at one side of the wall. A disabled person, by operating the seat, could zoom down to the bottom of the stairs and open up the folded wheelchair placed there. Ingenious and convenient!
At a drugstore in a shopping arcade, I encountered two mentally and physically challenged tweens who were strapped to big, reclining wheelchairs. They each had a nasogastric tube. Yet this did not prevent their mothers from taking them shopping. The drugstore’s spacious aisles made it easy for them.
One DIY store even provides wheelchairs at a corner for shoppers, free of charge. Indeed, such disabled-friendly stores deserve praise.
When I visited my sister in Penang, I couldn’t imagine how wheelchair-users get around on the street where she lives. You see, the old houses had five-foot ways with uneven ground and steps in between each row that were not conducive for pedestrians, let alone wheelchair-users.
In Japan, I see numerous wheelchair-users travelling independently on buses and trains. Non-step and wheelchair-friendly buses have been running for years.
Some taxis, too, cater for the handicapped. The driver helps the handicapped person into the passenger seat, then folds and puts away the wheelchair in the boot.
The storeroom at a subway station not only keeps lost-and-found items but also a wheelchair for emergency use. For the handicapped, they can request for assistance at the station booth and inform the station guard of the destination. A guard will place a board over the gap between the door and platform for smooth boarding or exit. In one of the carriages, a space near the door is allocated for the wheelchair- or senior car user.
Being confined to wheelchairs should not restrict people’s freedom to travel, and priority must be given to them.
Sarah Mori, a Malaysian married to a Japanese, has been living in Japan since 1992.