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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Disability and Culture - New Issues in Japanese Studies

November 11, 1998

Maike Roeder, Bonn University/Gakugei University

How do we think about disability? What does it mean to make disability the focus of social science inquiry? For decades, thinking about disability meant thinking about physical abnormality, imperfection, tragedy, and loss. Both social policy and academic research on disability reflected such a focus on the medical aspects of disability and concentrated on the need to find treatment and cures. While physical and vocational rehabilitation research has provided important ways of managing the lives of people with disabilities, it has also denied their existence as a political group with a history of discrimination.

This “medical model” of disability is now being challenged by a “social model” which analyzes disability as a social construction and speaks the language of civil rights and disability pride. Rather than focusing on the physical experience of disability (“impairment”) it draws attention to the ways social norms and attitudes create barriers that deny full participation and equality. In academia, a new Disability Studies perspective informs interdisciplinary research on the history, representation, movement, and literature of people with disabilities.

The disability perspective also promises new and important insights into Japanese society, and, as such, became the focus of the second DIJ Social Science Workshop. Three scholars doing dissertation fieldwork here in Tokyo have chosen disability as a critical/theoretical lens through which to look at Japanese society. Katharina Heyer (Political Science, DIJ/University of Hawai’i) opened the workshop with an exploration of the implications of the medical and social model for Japanese disability policy and activism. She argued that despite the profound impact of the United Nation’s International Year and Decade of Disabled Peoples (1981) and its call for full participation and equality, Japanese disability law and policy are still primarily reflective of the medical model. This has resulted in a sophisticated welfare and rehabilitation process; at the expense, however, of equal opportunities and integration. People with disabilities still live in separate institutions, go to special schools, and work in sheltered workshops.

The next presentation gave specific examples how such separation in education and work affects the lives of students with disabilities. Maike Roeder (Japanese Studies, Universität Bonn/Gakugei University) introduced the system by which students graduating from special schools are integrated into the workforce. She paid special attention to the ways employers comply with the legal employment quota of 1.6% and introduced a case study of a firm using creative ways to make its labor force more diverse.

Karen Nakamura (Anthropology, Yale University), the final presenter, began by asking the initial question of how to think about disability. She argued that the Japanese Deaf movement offers an alternative, “cultural” approach to the medical and social model of disability. Deaf people consider themselves part of a separate culture, which affirms Deafness as a positive part of disability identity.

This workshop drew a diverse and interested audience from a wide variety of disciplines, which confirms the interdisciplinary nature of this new discipline.