FEATURE: Visually impaired professor to light way forward on UN disability agenda

Jun Ishikawa delivers a statement at the Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2014 at UN Headquarters in New York.

2 December 2016 – Of the world’s 7.4 billion people, some 15 per cent – or one billion – are said to have some form of disability.

Jun Ishikawa is one of them. An international relations professor at the University of Shizuoka in Japan, he lost his eyesight at the age of 16.  Yet, he has become a visionary on the issue of disability in his country, leading the Commission on Policy for Persons with Disabilities, a watchdog for disability policy implementation, since 2012.

Mr. Ishikawa has gone on to become the first Japanese independent expert to be elected to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a role he will formally take up 1 January 2017. The other newly-elected members hail from New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Tunisia, Hungary, Kenya, Uganda and Russia.

The Committee, consisting of 18 individuals, monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), one of the most widely ratified international human rights instruments, with 169 Parties to it.

All States which are party to the Convention – which celebrates this year the 10th anniversary since its adoption by the UN General Assembly – are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights are being implemented. The Committee examines each report and makes suggestions and general recommendations on the report.

Japan ratified the Convention in 2014 and submitted its first report in June this year.

In his message for International Day of Persons with Disabilities, observed annually on 3 December, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged national and local governments, businesses and all actors in society to intensify efforts to end discrimination and remove the environmental and attitudinal obstacles that prevent persons with disabilities from enjoying their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. 

The adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has unfathomable impacts

In an interview with the United Nations Information Centre in Tokyo, Mr. Ishikawa shared his thoughts on the role of UN in this matter, how Japan fares compared to other countries, and his passion about aided engineering research.

The following are excerpts taken from the interview and re-purposed for English-speaking audiences.

UNIC Tokyo: What is the role of the UN regarding the rights of people with disabilities?

Jun Ishikawa: Human rights make up one of the three pillars of the UN’s work. Since the end of World War II, the UN has set global norms and standards in various areas of human rights. The adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has unfathomable impacts because it established a universal principle that countries – both advanced and developing – need to implement their national disability policy within the framework of the Convention.  Because economic, political, social and cultural backgrounds differ from country to country, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is expected to make effective and constructive suggestions that take into account each country’s current situation when publishing its concluding observations on State Parties’ reports.  

UNIC Tokyo: You were the first person who passed the entrance exam, in Braille, for the University of Tokyo. How did you do overcome your challenges you faced in doing so?

Jun Ishikawa: I was a child with weak sight. I lost my sight when I was in high school. After being hospitalized for nearly two years, I transferred to a school for the visually impaired that offered a high school-level programme, where I studied for three years and learned Braille. Fellow students taught me how to walk with a white cane. As for the college entrance exam, I studied by listening to recordings by my mother of textbooks from cover to cover.  

UNIC Tokyo: Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, awareness about people with disabilities and the building of inclusive society is gradually growing among the Japanese public. How does Japan fare compared to other advanced countries in terms of implementing disability policy?  

Jun Ishikawa: Japan submitted its first report at the end of June this year. The Commission on Policy for Persons with Disabilities contributed comments that were included in the report. In my view, Japan lags far behind other countries in the area of the hospital-to-community transition of persons with mental disabilities. There are a large number of people with mental disabilities who stay in hospital for a long time. The country’s system for supporting decision-making by those with mental disabilities is also weak. For instance, the adult guardianship system widely used in Japan for people with intellectual disabilities was originally intended to protect their interests. But it has become paternalistic as it is used even for those who can make decisions by themselves with adequate support. 

  UNIC Tokyo: In the wake of its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014, Japan enacted the Act to Eliminate Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities in April this year and revised the Act to Promote Employment of Persons with Disabilities. Do you have expectations in relation to this?

Jun Ishikawa: The former prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and obligates public entities to provide “reasonable accommodation” when a person with a disability requires the removal of a social barrier and if the burden associated with its implementation is not excessive. The private business sector is also required to “make an effort” to provide reasonable accommodation.  For instance, in school or the workplace, operators have an obligation to provide support, if requested, such as sign language interpretation or other alternative means, for people with hearing impairment – if such assistance is not an excessive burden for the operators. The later law introduced similar obligations in its revision. Thus, the provision of reasonable accommodation, which had been considered “voluntary goodwill,” has now become an obligation.   

UNIC Tokyo: You are also a sociologist and software programmer. What is that device in your hands? 

Jun Ishikawa: This is a mobile Braille device, known as Braille Sense. The hardware is manufactured in the Republic of Korea. I developed a substantial portion of software in it. This can do a lot of things, such as converting text into sound. It can be connected to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and handle email and social media such as Facebook. I used this device to make presentations during the election of members of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I also use this device to take notes and facilitate discussions during meetings of the Policy Commission, which I chair.

UNIC Tokyo: What is at the centre of your current research?

Jun Ishikawa: My work’s recent concept is “aided engineering that provides fun” for users. Until now, I have been studying and developing aid devices that are vital to education and employment for the disabled. But lately, my work is focused on aided engineering technology that disabled persons can enjoy, as well as on research directly connected to disability policy, such as accessibility, including the Global Positioning System (GPS) that aids the movement of the disabled. 

Aided engineering is inherently imperfect and inaccurate. GPS will not give you perfectly accurate location information. For instance, in places like Tokyo’s Shibuya district, which has many high rises, the margin of error could be substantial. We cannot recommend using this technology to those who do not accept that risk factor. This technology is for those who understands its imperfection and use it accordingly. It’s easy for naysayers to complain about imperfection, but you will arrive at an obvious answer if you compare it with the difficulty of walking without any assistance.

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