Today is my first full day in Okinawa to begin our program with the US Embassy on the Economic Benefits of Employing People with Disabilities in Japan.
We are beginning our trip in Naha, the capitol of Okinawa. We were greeted in the morning by Richard Roberts and Makiko Tasato from the Embassy. I first met Richard over two years ago in South Korea. He is passionate about promoting the employment of people with disabilities and breaking down stigma. It is always exciting to work with the US State Department and see how committed they are to advancing empowerment of people with disabilities. Jenifer Bochner and Brandon Lambert from the US State Department worked with the Embassy to arrange this program. They make me proud to be an American with a disability.
The weather is not the normal extremely hot weather, but it is in the 70’s. The flowers are beautiful with orchids everywhere.
Our first meeting was with En-o, a small wellness distribution company that has employed individuals with disabilities. The President, Mr. Kawabata, greeted us and invited us to join in a company activity.
I will never forget their morning meeting. At En-o, they believe that hitting goals and accomplishing and sustaining productivity is directly connected to happiness. They begin the day with stretching exercises to get the energy level of their employees up. This is followed by the manager having them cheer the day on for results. This is ended with the happy dance with a handshake with other employees. The employees love working at En-o and work very hard to hit goals. I think we all need to add this happy dance…Wait until Team Bender reads this idea.
Two people with hidden disabilities thanked us for attending and they talked about their jobs and how important employment is to them, acknowledging barriers faced by people with all types of disabilities. Richard and I each spoke for a few minutes.
The access in Okinawa is moderate, and at this company, to work in the distribution center, you would walk up a steep stairwell with a total of thirty steps. Obviously, anyone with a mobility disability would be unable to work at this company, but they are doing more than many other companies.
Our next meeting was a luncheon with members of Special Olympic Japan, Okinawa. At the luncheon, we were joined by Isamu Inamine, the President, Atsushi Nerome, the Director, Chip Steiz, and one of the athletes, Tomoya Takue. We discussed strategies about sustaining and expanding the program.
Our final meeting was with Ayako Sunakawa. Aya was a student of Richard’s several years ago, and he wanted us to meet her to gain perspective on disability in Okinawa. She is a psychologist and works with early identification and intervention of children with disabilities. She confirmed what I thought…Stigma and shame are prevalent. When I spoke about epilepsy, she told me that with the elder generation, her parents age group, they still believed in shamanism. Japanese shamanism believes in a shaman who can directly convene good and bad spirits and practices healing. People with disabilities, like epilepsy, are sent to shamans to be cured.
I hope, as I speak with and meet others, I will be able to break down some of the stigma and obliterate the need for a shaman.