Barrier Free Disability Japan

Are Japan’s taxis really becoming wheelchair-friendly? One model’s experience suggests not

Despite the nationwide introduction of over 20,000 universal design taxis and the government's goal of promoting an inclusive society in the run up to the Paralympics, it appears Japan still isn't in a place where wheelchair users can feel comfortable using the services.

From The Mainichi

September 11 2021

TOKYO– A Tokyo resident who uses a wheelchair was trying to use a taxi on the day before the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic opening ceremony when the driver suddenly shouted at her in a way that made her feel like she was being told to get out.

“I’m too afraid to ride a taxi now. But this is the reality for people with disabilities,” said Kazaho Moriyama, 40, a resident of the Tokyo suburban city of Fuchu who developed progressive muscular dystrophy when she was in the second grade of junior high school. She uses an electric wheelchair in her daily life.

The incident occurred on Aug. 23 as Moriyama was on her way to her city government office as part of her application for disability welfare. She decided to use a universal design taxi which she would be able to board in her wheelchair, and made a request with a cab firm for the car to come to her. But the driver who arrived didn’t seem to know how to let a wheelchair user on.

Universal design taxis are approved by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. To make them more accessible to people with disabilities and older individuals, the vehicles are required to have at least one entry point which can be accessed by a wheelchair user who remains in their chair. 

But despite the nationwide introduction of over 20,000 universal design taxis and the government’s goal of promoting an inclusive society in the run up to the Paralympics, it appears Japan still isn’t in a place where wheelchair users can feel comfortable using the services.

Promotion of the introduction of universal design taxis was among the measures included in the government’s universal design action plan 2020, announced in 2017. They have seen particularly high uptake in the capital due to provisions that mean that individuals can receive financial support from the national government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government when purchasing the vehicles while fulfilling certain conditions.

A March survey by the Japan Federation of Hire-Taxi Associations reported that there were 23,959 vehicles, with over half — 13,080 — in the capital. Many of the cars have been adorned with Olympic and Paralympic emblems. The survey also revealed that JPN TAXI, made and sold by Toyota Motor Corp. since 2017, has a market share of over 90%.

The car deployed to Moriyama’s home was a JPN TAXI. To allow a wheelchair user to board the vehicle, the driver affixes a ramp leading up to the back seat on the left-hand side, and after creating space by sliding the driver’s seat, the wheelchair can be led into the vehicle. Other measures including securing the passenger with a belt are also required.

But the driver who came to pick up Moriyama, however, only set up the ramp. They didn’t move the driver’s seat, and looked at her silently without pushing her chair up into the vehicle.

Moriyama did what she could and managed to get into the vehicle, but to hook her wheelchair to the driver’s seat, the driver wordlessly grabbed and shook her wheelchair. Moriyama, who lost her balance from the sudden shaking, felt she was being treated like an object. Without thinking, she muttered: “Not like that.” Suddenly the driver’s complexion changed, she said, and they shouted: “I’m doing the best I can! Do you want to give up?”

Somehow, they got the seatbelt secured and departed. The preparations had taken 15 minutes or more. Although they reached the city government office, Moriyama was hyperventilating from fear.

The Road Traffic Act requires both drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts, but wheelchair users are not subject to the requirements. But excluding exceptions for large-sized wheelchairs, reclining wheelchairs and other equipment, wheelchairs that can fit in JPN TAXI vehicles are, as a general rule, expected to be secured with a seatbelt.

Moriyama said, “It seemed like the driver thought that all they had to do was get the ramp ready. I want taxi companies to operate universal design taxis after having ensured drivers can thoroughly help people on board. Even though they’re driving around with the Paralympic emblem on them, ideals alone won’t make things a reality.”

After developing progressive muscular dystrophy, Moriyama modeled for photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s collection “6×7 hangeki,” roughly translating to “6×7 counterattack,” which was published by Arton Co. in 2007. In 2008 she announced her autobiography “Kazaho,” published by Kodansha Ltd. Although she had led a driven lifestyle, the spread of coronavirus infections brought a sudden change to her lifestyle. Previously she had gotten around in her own car, but she gave up on this and has recently been traveling by taxi.

Speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun, Moriyama said: “There were no words of apology from the driver this time, and the taxi company didn’t respond fully to the issue, either. I decided that for the sake of other people with disabilities, I couldn’t take it lying down and needed to make my voice heard.”

Satoshi Sato, 54, secretary general of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled People’s International, said that from around 2017, there have been many cases in which wheelchair users have been turned away from taxis. In October 2019 the organization had 120 people across the country to try to flag down and ride in universal design taxis. Over a quarter — 32 people — weren’t able to.

Among the ways they were rejected, some reported being in a wheelchair and raising their hand to a passing taxi which didn’t stop for them, while others said that even though the vehicles stopped, the drivers told them they didn’t know how to let the passengers on, or that they couldn’t board while still in their wheelchairs. Since the introduction of universal design taxis, there have been repeated cases of taxi firms being hit with administrative penalties or guidance after they refused to accept wheelchair users in their vehicles.

Why is it this hard for wheelchair users to ride in a taxi? Sato pointed out, “To get a wheelchair into the vehicles requires an extended process, and there are problems of drivers forgetting how to let people on when the time comes. Even with training, if they don’t let people in wheelchairs on frequently, they forget how to do it.”

In the case of the company that dispatched the car and driver involved in the incident with Moriyama, the company acknowledged that the driver had insufficient experience using a universal design taxi. It said: “We intend in future to hold a study session and to improve our skills. Universal design taxis have many steps involved, and remembering them quickly is difficult.”

But what is the state of training? To receive financial support upon purchase of a universal design taxi, the rules require that drivers with training at a special institution are dispatched, and that they receive training at the office twice a year or more, among other stipulations.

However, the National Welfare Transportation Service Association says that thorough training is difficult to achieve. An official at the association said: “Training at the office ultimately comes down to a self-reporting system. Even if training is received, for many drivers the reality is that there will be few opportunities to have passengers using wheelchairs board the vehicles.”

Sato, who uses a wheelchair himself, had this to say: “At businesses that use universal design taxis well, a number of drivers come together as a team, and together they teach each other the process at regular intervals during training. If businesses really feel that they want to make it easier for people with disabilities to use the services, then I think they can, based on their own ingenuity, make the situation better.”

The government’s universal design action plan 2020 states that there must be attempts to engage with “diversity of the heart,” and emphasizes that “we must cultivate the ability to imagine and empathize with all people’s issues, difficulties and pain.” Now that the Paralympic Games are over, has that diversity of the heart truly been realized?

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