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FOCUS September 2002 Volume 29

Rights of Disabled Persons and Japan

Kusunoki Toshio

The United Nations General Assembly at its 56th session adopted a resolution supporting the drafting of a "convention on the rights of persons with disabilities." The resolution is meant to promote the human rights of disabled persons and their participation in society based on the principles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Currently, there are around 600 million disabled persons around the world, approximately 10% of the global population. With the "retaliatory" bombing of Afghanistan by the U.S. last autumn (2001), numerous lives were lost and far more people suffered physical or mental disabilities. Approximately, a fifth of the number of disabled persons became disabled not just through direct involvement in combat, but through poverty, hunger, malnutrition and disease caused by war. The ratio of children under 15 in this group is exceedingly high.

Meanwhile, in the developed countries, the number of persons who become disabled in mid-life through diseases prevalent in modern society, such as brain disorders or diabetes, is increasing dramatically. Taking into account social factors such as traffic accidents, stress, unemployment and isolation, the issue of disabled persons is obviously global in scope, and it needs to be addressed immediately.

According to the 2001 survey of the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the number of physically disabled persons in Japan is approximately 3.4 million, of which 3.2 million live at home, and about 160,000 stay in institutions. Adding the 50,000 intellectually disabled1 persons and 2.18 million mentally disabled persons, the total number of disabled persons in Japan is estimated to be over 6 million. The standard used by the Japanese government to determine the number of disabled persons is unfortunately limited to physical disability. This is far too narrow a standard.

UN action

The Plan of Action for the International Year of Disabled Persons, adopted at the UNGA 34th session (1980) declares that

Disabled persons should not be considered as a special group with needs different from the rest of the community, but as ordinary citizens with special difficulties in getting their ordinary human needs fulfilled.

This is the concept of "normalization." Prior to this plan of action, the "Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons" was adopted in 1975. This declaration states the rights of disabled persons to lead a self-reliant life just as their fellow citizens regardless of the kind of disabilities they have, the right to engage in gainful employment, the participation of disabled persons in social life, and the prohibition of discrimination (including discrimination in living conditions and treatment in facilities) and violence against them. These concepts were radically different from the Japanese government policies at that time.

The UN Plan of Action represented the basic direction of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981). In 1982, the "World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons," designed as a guideline for achieving concrete results from the International Year was adopted. In 1983, the UN Decade of Disabled Persons was proclaimed. These initiatives urged the governments to enhance their policies on promoting equalization of opportunities for the disabled.

These initiatives present policy proposals in areas of prevention and rehabilitation, as well as improvement of the legal system, physical environment, social security, employment, education, sports and recreation. In 1987, a global meeting of experts was held in Stockholm for the mid-term review of the Decade, based on questionnaires sent to the governments. The meeting called for further strengthening of efforts by Asian and African countries.

In response, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) designated in 1992 the decade of 1993-2002 as the "Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons," to "consolidate the efforts initiated during the preceding United Nations Decade through a new emphasis on regional cooperation in support of progress at the national level."2 In 1993, the UN General Assembly adopted the "Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for People with Disabilities," based on the review of the Decade, and recommended to all member states to strengthen their efforts.

Need for Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons

The UNGA resolution calling for the adoption of a convention on the rights of the disabled persons states that the efforts so far undertaken by the UN "ノhave not been sufficient to promote full and effective participation by and opportunities for persons with disabilities in economic, social, cultural and political life." It reiterates the need to elaborate an international instrument on the rights of the disabled persons, which was also recommended to the General Assembly by governments in the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (2001).

The UNGA resolution identified steps to gather ideas from all sources (UN bodies, governments, and NGOs) about the convention that will be submitted to the 57th session of the UNGA in 2002.

In view of the overwhelming economic disparity between the developed and the developing countries, as well as the severe economic downturn in the developed countries, only some countries are actively in favor of elaborating a treaty. The road towards a comprehensive rights treaty might not be smooth.

Anti-Discrimination Law in Japan

In 1993, the Japanese government acknowledged the existence of four barriers to the independence and social participation of disabled persons: legal, physical, informational and cultural, and people's attitude. In 1995, the "Government Action Plan for Persons With Disabilities: A Seven-Year Strategy to Achieve Normalization," which included numerical policy targets, was made public. Subsequently, a legislation promoting barrier-free access in transportation was passed in May 2002. Significant progress was made in the amendment of the law enabling access to public buildings, and in making a policy aimed at reducing access-to-information disparities by improving information technology systems. In spite of these positive developments, however, the removal of barriers in the legal system and in the people's minds has not improved very much. The Basic Law for Persons with Disabilities, enacted in 1993 did not include provisions for the protection of rights and prohibition of discrimination. No law on such rights has been legislated since then. Government policies to enable persons with disabilities lead an independent life have, therefore, seen little progress. And cases of serious human rights violations against disabled persons continue to arise.

Meanwhile, organizations such as the Japan Federation of Organizations of Physically Disabled Persons and the Japan National Assembly of Disabled People's International (DPI) continued discussions to pursue the enactment of the Japan Disabilities Act (JDA), which would prohibit discrimination against disabled persons. This issue will be taken up in the World Assembly of DPI (October 2002, Sapporo).

An anti-discrimination law would need to clarify what actions or situations should be prohibited as discrimination against the disabled persons. The ongoing discussions on the welfare system reform emphasize the autonomy of the disabled persons, which makes the coordination between the client's will and policy decision-making a critical issue. A stricter application of the guardianship system will also be required. Further, there must be explicit provisions on education, employment, independent living and housing environment, income security, provision of care, appropriate medical care, and access to information. There is also an urgent need for a legal remedy mechanism in case of violation of rights. A system for the participation by the disabled persons themselves in the policy-making process is another essential issue.

The activities supporting the JDA legislation is increasing in strength. Aside from DPI, the National Bar Association and members of the Diet (national legislature), among others, have joined the campaign. Further appeals must be made to the government, bearing in mind the discussions in the UN for the drafting of the rights convention, and the coordination with UN bodies.

Kusunoki Toshio is the Deputy Chairperson of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples' International (DPI).

For further information, please contact: Kusunoki Toshio, HUMIND, 2-2-3 Kuboyoshi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka 556-0028 Japan, ph (816) 6561-4194, fax (816) 6561-4211.


  1. Previously known as "mentally retarded." Since these words are considered derogatory in meaning and fail to convey the real condition of the persons concerned, they are no longer used. See for examples of negative and positive use of words and expressions relating to disabled persons.
  2. See "The Agenda for Action of the Decade" of the UN ESCAP in