Editor’s Note: Our guest contributor this week is Atsuko Kuwana. She and her late husband Michael Winter have spent their adult lives advocating for people with disabilities. She is a family friend and shares her story of deciding to work on the social justice issues that impact disabled persons. This is the first of a two-part post by Ms. Kuwana on this topic.
My life as a physically disabled person has become my primary justice issue.
My disability is a spinal cord injury and I use a wheelchair to live independently.
I was born and raised in Japan and lived in an institution from age 4 to 10 years old. After leaving the institution, I attended a special school for the disabled kids for twelve years. The school was not integrated in that, though I was living at home, I was still segregated from mainstream society.
At that time, there were almost no accessible bathrooms, public transportation or restaurants for peoples with disabilities in Japan. Furthermore, since I was in a wheelchair, there were very few places I could frequent., Many people would just stare at me since they were not used to seeing or being around disabled people. At that age, I didn’t even realize how much society discriminated against people with disabilities. But while I initially blamed myself for not being accepted, I gradually began to notice that I wasn’t at fault.
When I was in my early twenties, I had the opportunity to be an intern at the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California. The Center was organized by leaders of the disabled community and provided various services to support persons with disabilities living in the community independently.
Another goal of the center was to change society’s attitudes towards people with disabilities. I still remember one of the Center’s leaders proclaiming that disabled people are not the ones who need to change. Rather what needed to change were the inaccessible facilities, services and systems which were the main reasons disabled people couldn’t live in the community on their own. Therefore, if non-disabled people could learn and further understand my disabilities and those of others, we could be successfully integrated into society. The idea that the society in which we lived was the issue was shocking to me at first, yet I felt empowered and reassured that I could truly be myself in this world.
For these reasons, I became motivated to become an advocate for persons with disabilities and working to help create an accessible society in which people like myself could live with dignity and without discrimination.
In my 60’s, I started to feel physically and mentally weak. Educating communities, vocalizing ongoing issues and asserting disabled rights began to take a toll on me as social discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities still remain. After spending time in Washington, D.C. and now living in Hawaii, I can confirm that culture and history are unfortunately inextricably linked to social discrimination and prejudice. As an Asian-American who is currently living in a community where people of my race are the majority, I had thought I would feel more empowered and further connected to those around me. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The community here makes disabled people feel even further separated with their outdated systems, inaccessibility and decreased exposure to disabled persons.
It is not easy to change the consciousness of people. I remain aware that there are always many obstacles in the way of implementing new systems and policies. However, I believe that if I treat myself with self-respect and self-love, I can overcome discrimination and prejudice.
Only a few years ago that I didn’t understand the true difference between empathy and sympathy. However, recently I have come to believe that empathy is the solution to resolving prejudice and discrimination in society. Empathy is not an easy skill to obtain. Being able to fully understand another person requires understanding of self, courage, awareness, sensitivity and knowledge of human behavior and psychology. In being focused on developing empathy, I have come to realize that the ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes can play a vital role in reducing the misunderstanding of and the discrimination against people with disabilities within our society today.
I will continue to hold faith and hope, as well as live my life with integrity in the full understanding that the only way to create change is to take action.