By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s upper house of parliament was completing renovations on Monday to improve access for two severely-disabled lawmakers set to arrive this week, carving out space for their wheelchairs and building a temporary ramp.
As members of a small opposition group who won seats in the July 21 election, Yasuhiko Funago and Eiko Kimura symbolise changing attitudes in a nation that has long encouraged disabled people to stay in the shadows.
“We’ll do everything we can for them so there’ll be no problems,” upper house spokesman Koji Ono said of the two, who use reclining wheelchairs and will need help in parliament. He put the cost of the renovations at about 700,000 yen ($6,500).
Kimura has cerebral palsy, while Funago, who cannot speak and communicates using an interpreter or a computer, has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurological disease whose victims gradually lose control of the muscles.
At the weekend, workers took out seats at the back of the parliamentary chamber and put in electrical outlets for computers and medical devices. They also removed a 15-cm (6-inch) step between the door and the seating space.
A temporary ramp is to be built at the main entrance, where lawmakers go up a set of stone steps carpeted in red to make their ceremonial first entry.
“There aren’t words enough to express my feelings,” Funago said through an interpreter on Friday, at a ceremony where he received his official certification as a lawmaker.
When Japan elected its first wheelchair-using lawmaker in 1977, there were no toilets for the disabled in the parliament building, and he initially had to be carried up the stairs.
“I’d like them to quickly make it possible for people in wheelchairs to be able to confidently enter parliament without needing anybody’s help,” the MP, Eita Yashiro, said at the time.
Before this month’s election, disability experts hailed the rare candidacies of Funago and Kimura as a welcome development, but added they were intended to flag the need for greater change as Japan prepares to host the Paralympic Games next year.
In their wheelchairs, Funago and Kimura will still have to take a roundabout route to the upper house chamber, however, as the ramp for Thursday’s ceremony only goes part of the way up a steep flight of stairs.
Asked if there were plans to put in an elevator, Ono said the space was insufficient. “There’s some things that just can’t be done, given the structure of the building,” he added.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)