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Legislators with severe disabilities at Japan Parliament signal changing attitudes

Like it is in India, people with disabilities in Japan are not encouraged to come out of the shadows. Which makes the election of two severely disabled legislators to Japan's Upper House welcome news. This is being seen as a sign that the country is finally making a significant shift away from traditional stereotypes regarding disabled people.

Yasuhiko Funago has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurological disease, while Eiko Kimura has cerebral palsy. These newly elected legislators to Japan's Upper House don't come from a powerful party either but belong to a small opposition group. Which makes their election to Japan's parliament a moment in history.

Such developments are rare in a country where people with disabilities are largely found in the shadows. Funago and Kimura are still exceptions but their election is being seen as welcome steps that signal a change that comes just as Japan is preparing to host the 2020 Paralympics.

Both legislators will serve the full term of six years. They use wheelchairs and require assistance in day to day activities. Arrangements are being made to ensure that the assembly in Japan is accessible and renovations to the Upper House are underway to facilitate easy access.

The wave of change, say experts in Japan, is the fallout of a realisation among the disabled community that they can ask for reasonable accommodation in running for public office and working in Parliament. It's a development that disability rights advocates in India hope will inspire similar change here.

I do think that the world has really moved on from the stage when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to hide his disability to be the United States president, to a situation today when persons with disabilities all over the world are entering electoral politics, being representatives. I know there is still a long way to go but I hope this news inspires Indian political parties to ensure that disabilities are included too and persons with disabilities start getting represented in electoral politics. - Nipun Malhotra, CEO, Nipman Foundation

Vinayana Khurana, a young blogger and activist, and a wheelchair user also believes that greater electoral representation is the only way to ensure the voice of the disabled community gets heard. "We talk about an inclusive society and we do need it in the Parliament too. We need politicians with disabilities who can empathise with the needs of disabled people".

It's not that disabled politicians are unheard of in India. Among the tallest leaders was the late DMK chief M Karunanidhi , who hit the headlines when he walked out of the Assembly in rage for lack of proper seating arrangements for a wheelchair user. But few of them took up the issue of disability rights seriously, including Jaipal Reddy, who passed away recently.

Funago, on the other hand, has made his agenda clear. One of them, he said in an interview, was to "convey to everyone with disabilities that there is no limit to their potential." His presence at the Upper House is in itself a powerful affirmation of that.

Dr Riitesh Sinha, an innovator from Karnal with cerebral palsy, is confident that this will brings in winds of change globally.

"This is historical event because people with severe disabilities who know what needs to actually change to build an equal world have been elected. Now, more people with severe disabilities around the world will be encouraged to take part in the political setup of their countries. They will help create possibilities for many more severely disabled people around the world."

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