This was a great day! I especially loved it because I spent time with high school students with disabilities, and everyone knows how I love young people with disabilities!
I met Richard and Makiko early in the morning. We went to our first meeting of the day to Associa Social University. We were greeted by the CEO, Makito Kaniya; he is wonderful. The students have behavioral disabilities, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities and/or disabilities that impact emotional and social development.
This school, designed for social skills development, is trendy and very welcoming to young people. The University has an area like any student union, and they work to increase social skills though interaction with other students. They conduct classes that focus on engaging students to communicate and develop social skills. Some students have college and graduate degrees, but families believe they cannot communicate and would not be employable. They believe autism or ADHD would be viewed poorly in corporate Japan. Remember, with no ADA, employees can be fired due to a disability. Students with disabilities are not all mainstreamed and most attend a “special school.”
During the tour, I walked into one of the classes of high school students with disabilities to meet and talk with the students. It was so wonderful to engage and ask them about their long-terms goals and dreams. After I left the class, one by one the students came out to the lobby area to have a photo with me. One young man told me he lived with autism and ADHD and had a question for me – He asked me, “How did you become successful with a disability?” I told him that a disability does not define you or stop you from being successful. He was so wonderful. He looked me in the eye and told me “I will never forget you; that is what this is all about – hope. I want that hope translated to employment and that is my mission in this country.
We went to lunch with Makito at Café Associa, a restaurant with employees with disabilities from the University. I was lucky enough to go to the bakery, and the student employees just finished baking chocolate scones. They were right out of the oven…delicious. This University a great example of what people with disabilities can do.
Later that afternoon, I participated in a panel discussion with the American Chamber of Commerce in Okinawa. The attendees were mainly small businesses interested in what we are doing in the U.S. to employ people with disabilities and learn how to break down barriers. After my short presentation and remarks from one other group that works with small businesses, I decided to ask questions to the audience – a group of about 25 people. My first question was, “Why do you think companies do not hire people with disabilities in Okinawa.” The answers were stigma and accommodations, but mainly stigma. They have buildings that are not accessible at all. They could not hire a person with a disability who uses a mobile device.
The best thing that happened was when a young woman from a hotel told me that now that she has learned from me the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, she would like to try doing so. She said although her property is limited with accessibility, a person who uses a wheelchair could do other jobs. This really made my day! If I can change minds, I know we have made great progress!