A Way In

Josh Grisdale explores Japan’s accessibility options

Josh Grisdale

Squeezing into a store in Harajuku or making your way along a gravel path towards a shrine can be pleasant until your wheelchair doesn’t fit or gets stuck. To avoid this, Josh Grisdale is helping make Japan a more accessible nation to all people, whether they travel on two legs, on wheels or with companion animals.

Grisdale is the web presence manager for Azalee Group, a service for elderly care, education and medicine. In his free time he manages Accessible Japan, a website he created to make getting around Japan easier for English speakers with physical disabilities.

He has been in a wheelchair since the age of four, is quadriplegic, and has cerebral palsy. Having grown up in Uxbridge, a small town just outside Toronto where driving is the main mode of transportation, Grisdale faced accessibility challenges from a young age.

Regardless, his personal interest in Japanese culture and travelling led him on numerous trips to Japan. He moved here about 10 years ago, and became a Japanese citizen in 2016.

Grisdale recognized that there was a lack of English information about tourism in, or moving to, Japan for disabled people, so he created his website and wrote a guide­book, Accessible Japan’s Tokyo: All you need to know about traveling to Tokyo with a disability. The website documents details such as the presence or lack of elevators, terrain conditions, and bathrooms at popular tourist locations.

The book also features lifestyle informa­tion, such as guide dog policy, transportation and accessible restaurants, to help make settling down easier for disabled non-Japanese.

Since his first visit to Japan, Grisdale says accessibility in Japan has greatly improved in a short time, thanks to two new laws: the Heartful Building Law (1994) and the Barrier Free Law (2006). They have resulted in greater accessibility having been enforced for disabled people. However, he still sees plenty of room for improvement.

“The most important part of accessibility is for disabled people to have the same experience as everybody else.”

Many signature Japanese tourist destina­tions, such as onsen and small ramen restaurants, are rarely wheelchair accessible. Traditional designs, including raised entrances and stone steps to fancy restaurants, also prevent many disabled people from fully enjoying Japanese culture.

“I think the most important part of accessibility is for disabled people to have the same experience as everybody else,” Grisdale said, adding that architec­ture which provides accessibility while preserving culture is what Japan needs to concentrate on. He said, “The majority of my accessibility problems are usually just by one step; if I could just get over that one step then I can go into that restaurant or I can go into that store.”

Grisdale explained how the entrance of his apartment is a good example of overcoming that one step. He said, “I call it a genkan [traditional entrance] in spirit because they’ve just changed the colour and the flooring so you come in and the first part is linoleum and then there is a very small bump when it changes over to wood panels. But everybody knows when they come, to take off shoes here, and not walk there, so it still keeps the main cultural aspect of it but removes the barrier.”

Grisdale emphasized that investment in accessible design and even artificial intelligence is not just for the disabled. As he explains, “It is an investment for the future and your children’s future” that provides a range of benefits for elderly people, parents with baby strollers, and the millions of tourists who will come to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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