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  • Writer's pictureSteve Wright

Honoring A Legacy While Learning From Japan

By Steve Wright


An image of Tokyo, Japan at Sunset.
Am image of Tokyo, Japan at sunset.

I recently traveled to Tokyo to assist with the world premiere of the disability-positive film: “Mark – A Call To Action.”


A documentary that follows the brief but brilliant life of Mark Bookman, PhD, -- Fullbright scholar, disability inclusion researcher and Tokyo College postdoctoral fellow. The 90-minute feature tells a father-son love story as Bookman’s father Paul works to find an elusive diagnosis then supports his brilliant son through a heart transplant, transition to using a wheelchair and adapting to life as a scholar-leader halfway around the world.


It depicts Mark Bookman’s rise to working with the International Paralympic Committee and United Nations, influencing policy via commentaries published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Japan Times and a prestigious academic opportunity in Kyoto.


I am honored to appear in the film as a Universal Design expert, focused on creating a better built environment for people with disabilities. Japan has made some monumental strides toward inclusion, but like every place, still has much (far too many shops and restaurants – even in brand new spaces – require steps to enter) left to accomplish.


In the U.S., we will celebrate the 34th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26th. It was very interesting to see how a nation that does not have underlying legislation as strong as the ADA commits so strongly to accessible public transit and inclusive public restrooms.


My trip allowed me to:

  • Honor a great disability advocate who died much too soon.

  • Further the documentary subject’s legacy of inclusion.

  • Learn about a terrific leadership program for people with disabilities.

  • Marvel at clean, efficient and large accessible public restrooms.


Mark Bookman, PhD, Tokyo College postdoctoral fellow and historian of disability policy and connected social movements in Japan, made an everlasting impact on disability inclusion. In late 2022, he died at age 31.


Bookman had a rare variant of a metabolic-genetic condition. It is not Muscular Dystrophy but has similar impacts on the body.  He had a heart transplant at age 10 and used a wheelchair for mobility most of his adult life.


In addition to his academic work, Bookman collaborated with public sector and private sector clients in Japan and the United States. He spoke at numerous conferences, underscoring that everyone is aging and many will experience some kind of disability. Bookman created a legacy of teaching the intrinsic value of disability inclusion. His dissertation on inclusion is being published by the prestigious Oxford University Press, for release in 2025. 


Because I travel the world speaking about accessibility I want to share some observations about Tokyo – where I explored access for two weeks while participating in the world premiere of “Mark – A Call To Action.”


Tokyo, a highly populated city, that is spread over an enormous space -- could not exist without its always on time, can get you to everywhere, network of subways and above ground trains. Most essential stations have elevators to get wheelchair users up or down to boarding platforms. They also have outstanding wayfinding to point the way to these. I tried 100-plus elevator – 100 percent of them worked. When I visit New York, a terribly high percentage of access elevators are out of service.


Image of a toilet with and a urinal with grab bars around both.
An accessible and clean restroom in Tokyo

The other huge takeaway was the super clean and accessible public restrooms. Even the largest commuter train stations in America often lack restrooms and when they have them, they are filthy and often ill-equipped for people with disabilities.


Virtually every restroom area had a men’s, women’s and unisex/accessible restroom. The accessible ones were huge – and featured easy to toggle levers, located low toward wheelchair height, for locking the stall for privacy. Some even had automatic door openers and closers and a good number featured adult changing stations.


Equally clean, well-maintained and fabulously-accessible free public restrooms are everywhere – at parks, by bridges, even in narrow old alleys famed for tiny shops serving ramen and Japanese beer.


The lesson is that the ADA is a strong foundation, but true inclusion is only realized through a commitment to universal design. We celebrate the ADA this month, but must realize we all have a responsibility to create a world where the built environment is accessible to people with disabilities. This commitment, which pays huge dividends for society as a whole, is especially imperative on architects, planners, mobility engineers, builders, employers and government. Let's make the world accessible to everyone.


Steve Wright is an award-winning writer and Universal Design expert based in Miami. He travels throughout the U.S. and abroad to lecture on creating a better built environment for people with disabilities. He created and teaches a universal design course at the University of Miami School of Architecture. Read Steve’s blog at urbantravelandaccessibility.blogspot.com


To watch the trailer and learn more about GLIDE Fund -- a nonprofit in Mark Bookman’s honor “established to provide financial assistance to disabled students interested in education exchange experiences to foster an inclusive society in which anyone can lead an independent and self-determined life.” – visit:  https://www.glidefund.org/documentary

 

 

 

 

 

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