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The Tokyo Paralympics – what legacy will it leave?


“Going for jobs in the past, there would always be parts of a role or the building that had barriers – but when I was a Games Maker, it was the first time in my life I had access to all areas! Nowhere on the Olympic Park was out of bounds.  It was amazing to feel for the first time in my life I could work equally in all parts of my job.”

The 2012 Paralympics was special for me in more ways than one. Not only was I a ‘Games Maker’, but the event focused on Paralympians’ ability rather than their disability and was a massive step forward in helping embed accessibility across London.

We all thought it was going to be a game-changer, and for a while it felt that way, but as the National Disability Strategy has just highlighted there is so much more that still needs to be done.

This raises an interesting question – if London 2012 set the benchmark for all future Paralympic Games in terms of accessibility and changing attitudes, but 9 years later we’re still falling short, what legacy will Japan leave?

Japan’s questionable track record

Japan doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to disabled people. For years they have been ostracised from society and in extreme cases legally sterilised to prevent the birth of children who the government deemed ‘inferior’.  In fact, when Japan last hosted the Paralympic Games in 1964 the Eugenic Protection Law was still in force and wasn’t repealed until 1996.

Over recent years, steps have been made to make improvements. The government has increased employment quotas for disabled people stating that they should make up 2.5% of the public sector workforce and 2.2% in the private sector. There is also a law against ‘unjust discrimination’ which urges companies to create accessible spaces as well as provide dictation and braille services.

While private companies don’t have to take any action to make their buildings accessible, on the plus side, nearly all train and subway stations are wheelchair accessible and tactile paving blocks to assist blind and partially sighted people are ubiquitous throughout Japan. In fact, they originate from there!

But the problem isn’t just the infrastructure, but also the mindset. According to a recent survey by the Japan National Assembly of Disabled People’s International, 27% of disabled people have been refused service by a ‘universal design’ barrier-free taxi. And when the composer for the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 has to resign after admitted bullying disabled classmates, you have to wonder if attitude is the bigger problem.

And that’s before we talk about the stigma around mental health, which stops people in Japan from seeking treatment.

This year’s Olympics forced the issue of mental health centre stage and saw the International Olympic Committee establish a ‘Mentally Fit Helpline’ as a confidential support service for athletes. Hopefully, this will go some way to changing negative perceptions.

A lasting legacy isn’t just about infrastructure

“From the Olympics we can see that with enough will and ambition we can create superb inclusive facilities – it is possible.”

The International Paralympics Committee President Sir Philip Craven described London 2012 as ‘the greatest Paralympic Games ever’. And it was.

From the outset organisers set out to deliver the most accessible Olympic and Paralympic Games in history with every single part of the games being made accessible including ticketing, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and even the staff areas.  It’s why I was able to be a Games Maker.

One of the highlights for me was listening to the anthems and watching the flag ceremonies – it was super emotional watching elite players and their coaches in tears!  And it was just amazing, that I could be there for it all.

But as well as showing that it is possible to make The Games fully accessible, it achieved something else – it raised awareness and changed attitudes.

For the first time ever, the Paralympics were positioned as a high-performance sport event, which saw two thirds of the UK population watch coverage, and crucially resulted in 75% of people feeling more positive about the role of disabled people in the UK.

And that’s the thing about the Paralympics. It helps people focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t.

And it looks like Japan is already taking positive steps to changing things for the better. As well as making hotels and sports facilities more accessible, schools are teaching students about the Paralympics. And with a record 4,400 para-athletes expected to compete in this year’s Games, it’s set to be one of the most memorable. Just a shame there won’t be any spectators because of COVID-19.

And then there’s the campaign ‘WeThe15’. Bringing together organisations such as the International Paralympic Committee, UNESCO and The Valuable 500, it’s using the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games as a springboard for its launch and aims to “raise awareness, change attitudes and create more opportunities” for disabled people.

All of this is helping put ‘disabled people back on the radar’ which in itself is a worthwhile legacy.

Japan isn’t the only one who needs to up their game

While the 2012 London Olympics might have been a beacon of getting accessibility right, it now feels things are going backwards.

There are many developments and estates where the access could be a lot better and it seems developers are too focused on just doing the bare minimum – just enough for them to get planning permission.

Does this ‘box ticking’ explain why lower quality platform lifts are being used in buildings when there should be good quality passenger lifts? The Olympics proved we could do it if we really wanted to, so it’s a shame that companies and developers seem to have lost their ambition for inclusion.

As for Japan? Yes, I am biased, but I don’t feel like any country can replicate what we had for 2012 – amazing venues, a great attitude, the Last Leg.

Let’s hope for the sake of 9.6 million disabled people in Japan, the Tokyo Paralympics proves me wrong.