University of Tokyo: Understanding, partnership cultivate barrier-free culture

During an interview held online on a rainy day in late October, Associate Professor Shinichiro Kumagaya of the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology described how hard it is for him to go to campus on a day like this. Kumagaya, who was born with cerebral palsy — a neurological disorder affecting muscle movement and coordination due to brain injury at or around birth — and uses a wheelchair, usually dons a raincoat to cover his body and his wheelchair in wet weather. That, he explained, makes simple movements like taking out a train ticket from his pocket difficult. Getting around in the rain also can be more hazardous due to low visibility. But as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted people to work from home and hold meetings and classes online, such burdens have greatly eased, he said.

“The pandemic has drastically changed the circumstances for people with disabilities,” said Kumagaya, who heads UTokyo’s Disability Services Office (DSO), where he has served as director since 2017.

While the pandemic has reduced the stress of traveling for wheelchair users like Kumagaya, it has created new challenges for people with other disabilities. Students who are hard of hearing, for example, used to have student note takers sitting next to them in class in the pre-pandemic days. By reading the notes, or sometimes if a sign language interpreter was present, they understood what was being taught in class. But as the classes moved online, students with hearing loss struggled to follow lessons, Kumagaya said.

“It’s like sitting in a cockpit,” Kumagaya said. “They have to look at the notes sent by support staff, while watching the class on Zoom. Sometimes, they even have to send feedback to the note takers. The multitasking can be extremely difficult.”

As the pandemic has drastically changed the working and learning environments, the DSO has dealt with such emerging issues with the use of technologies and operation systems. But what became clear was a lack of awareness and understanding among faculty was creating a bottleneck, Kumagaya explained.

“They need to use their imagination and craft their classes assuming that there could be students who are hard of hearing. Otherwise, no matter how hard we work behind the scenes, we won’t be able to solve these issues,” he said. “I believe all the members of the university need to raise their awareness (of the challenges people with disabilities face). Otherwise, I don’t think the services and classes offered by the university will ever become wholly accessible.”