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How to welcome people with disabilities

There are 7.41 million people registered with some sort of disability in Japan—roughly 6% of the population.1 But how many do you see on a daily basis?

When I first came to Japan with OMF, I was under the impression that the disabled were hidden away by their families because of shame. After I arrived, though, I started to feel this was a misjudgment and it wasn’t that bad . . . until recently.

After a tragic attack that took the lives of 19 people at a care facility for the disabled in Sagamihara (July 2016), there was uproar in the disabled community because the names and faces of the victims were not released—mostly at the request of families because they didn’t want others to know about their disabled relatives. While this is an extreme case, people with disabilities and their families face many challenges in Japanese society, just like everywhere else in the world.

Those with a disability that requires care at a facility often have to live apart from their families. Since there are not enough facilities, families go on a waiting list and jump at the first opportunity they get, even if it means that their family member has to go to a different prefecture.

Those who are more independent also face challenges. Some have trouble finding a job, while those who get a job often find it unfulfilling as many companies hire disabled people (because they are obliged by legislation to employ a certain number of people with physical or intellectual disabilities2), but give them inconsequential work. Going out with friends can be frustrating since many cafés and restaurants are not accessible, and the person with a disability may feel awful that they’ve ruined a night out with friends when the restaurant everyone wants to go to turns out to be inaccessible.

I deliberately paint a bleak picture because it is an opportunity for the church to be an open door and a family to those in need. But it does require deliberate action by all of us.

Be there for them

Sometimes people just need to know that someone hears them. As humans, we love to fix problems and offer solutions—but this can be dangerous. Often people with disabilities feel like no one really understands them, and if someone says “I know how you feel; I broke my toe once,” it can just reaffirm that feeling. Or when people make a big deal out of how “inspiring” people with disabilities are, it can feel awkward. Instead, show that you care about the person as you do any other person. I still remember a time over 20 years ago when I was going somewhere with a friend and he started to take the stairs but said, “Right, I forgot you were in a wheelchair”. He saw me for me, not my disability.

Be there for families as well. A child with a disability can mean a mountain of extra responsibilities that other families don’t experience—numerous appointments clog the schedule, expensive equipment and renovations strain finances, and simple things take longer to do. Some mothers feel responsible for causing their child’s disability or are even blamed for it by their mother-in-law. Show love and compassion and gently ask how the church could help.

Some practical ideas:

  • Give parents a day to themselves or the opportunity to listen to a sermon in peace by looking after their disabled child.
  • Let families know that their child’s disability was not their fault.
  • Consider how you can include people with disabilities when you plan church events or allocate roles. I was very happy to be asked to help with the offering or to act as a greeter.
  • Use your smartphone to Skype the sermon to people who physically cannot be present or make a video to send later. Facebook and Youtube both offer free streaming services, so all it takes is a few minutes to set up an account.
  • Read about disabilities and learn some differences. For example, just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I have no feeling in my legs.
  • Try to make it about the person, not the disability. “That’s a cool wheelchair” is an easy icebreaker, but it focuses on my least-liked aspect. You wouldn’t say, “That’s a nice shiny head!” to someone who is bald.


In my hometown, my family’s chiropractor had a step at the door, followed by a small porch with another door. They built a wooden ramp up the step to the door for me, but it had to be lugged out from a closet each time. When I asked why they didn’t leave it out, they explained that they didn’t have many disabled people come. My mom tried to convince them that there were likely many people with disabilities who would like to come but see a step and give up, since it looked inaccessible. It’s the chicken-and-egg dilemma.

Recently, an anti-discrimination law was enacted in Japan to promote access for those with disabilities. While not strict like the Americans with Disabilities Act, it does encourage public places to accommodate “within reason”.

Churches likely have tighter budgets restrictions than other public places, but my encouragement is to do what you can, go above “within reason” when possible, to be a light to the community.

Suggestions to make churches accessible to all:

  • If you have an accessible entrance that is not obvious, add a sign with a phone number for someone to call if they need assistance.
  • If you cannot afford to renovate, send an email to the missionary community via JEMA asking for a Christian carpenter to volunteer to build a ramp.
  • If you cannot build an accessible washroom, at the very least know where the nearest one is (almost all parks and train stations have them) and offer to show a first-time attender.
  • When renovating or considering a new location, get the opinions of disabled people. (I’ve been left out of accessibility planning before and the renovated toilet wasn’t accessible in the end!)
  • If your church is completely inaccessible, and it is out of your control to adapt it (e.g. you are renting a place), have a list of nearby accessible churches ready so you could easily introduce a person to another church if they ask.

Remember, accessibility benefits everyone—elevators were first installed for the disabled but also benefit many others. Consider it an investment for yourself a few years down the road.

The list of possibilities for improving access is endless. But most importantly, ask someone with a disability.

I remember reading the words of a priest who lamented the slow move to accessibility at churches in the US back when the Americans with Disabilities Act came into effect. He said it would be our greatest shame when places like taverns and shopping malls are accessible but our churches are not. Instead, let us inspire the community by how far out of the way we go to be leaders in accessibility rather than reluctant followers.

1. Cabinet Office, Government of Japan. http://www8.cao.go.jp/shougai/whitepaper/h25hakusho/gaiyou/h1_01.html, accessed Jan 11 2017.

2. “Employment Measures for Persons with Disabilities in Japan” by Ryosuke Matsui. Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Centre, accessed February 23, 2017. http://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2008/12/employment-measures-for-persons-with-disabilities-in-japan.html

Josh Grisdale came to Japan from Canada with OMF in 2007 and served at Senkyō Church and Wheelchairs of Hope. He later became a salaryman. Now a Japanese citizen, he runs Accessible-Japan.com in his spare time.

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