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Outdoor Sports for the Physically Challenged

September 3, 1998

Handicapped sports enthusiasts are taking to the skies. (Japan Sky-Sports Physically Disabled)

More and more people with physical handicaps are heading outdoors to enjoy sports--from scuba diving to yachting, hang gliding, and more. Volunteer activities to assist physically handicapped people have also been growing in both size and scale. These, combined with the impressive performance of the athletes in the recent Nagano Winter Paralympic Games, appear to have heightened the feeling among handicapped people that "I can do it, too!" An environment that allows people with physical handicaps to engage in all sports, however, is not yet in place--handicapped athletes face a lack of facilities that meet their needs, a shortage of qualified instructors, and many other problems.

Free as a Fish in the Sea
Every weekend, physically handicapped people gather at the seaside in the town of Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, to go scuba diving. These people are taking a training course offered by a diving instruction organization established in 1990. A man in his thirties, who lost his left leg in an accident when he was nine years old, removes his artificial leg, attaches a larger-than-normal flipper to his right foot, and is soon swimming around free as a fish in the sea. Another man in his thirties who cannot use flippers because of cerebral infantile paralysis (otherwise known as polio), walks along the sea floor assisted by an instructor. He is receiving training in underwater photography.

The organization running this program provides courses for people with physical handicaps and trains instructors. 200 physically handicapped people have already taken courses and obtained their diving certification cards. The organization has also trained about 40 instructors in the techniques needed to teach the sport to the physically disabled. It is much easier for people with physical handicaps to move in the water, making diving an ideal rehabilitation activity. But rehabilitation aside, an instructor with the organization says, "It's enough just getting people with physical handicaps to enjoy diving normally."

Yachting and Paragliding, Too
These kinds of activities are not only held under the water. One Tokyo group of yachting enthusiasts holds regular training courses designed especially for physically handicapped people. The program got its start when group members came up with the idea of inviting physically handicapped people out for tours on their yachts. The program has grown, and now, on two weekends a month, physically handicapped people take the helm in Tokyo Bay under the guidance of veteran sailors. The group reports that so far about 200 people with physical handicaps have taken part in the program. After returning to the marina, the participants have a shipboard party. Events like these allow the participants just to enjoy the company of other people who love the ocean, whether or not they are handicapped.

A volunteer organization started by aerial sports lovers at the end of 1997 is working to make the dream of flying come true for physically handicapped people. So far, the group has modified and motorized hang gliders and other flying equipment so that people in wheelchairs can ride them and conducted many test flights. The group plans to start using an airport in the Tohoku region of Japan in the near future to provide physically handicapped people with an opportunity to experience the thrill of flying.

Barrier-Free Participation is the Goal
Sports geared for physically handicapped people are expanding by leaps and bounds, but many obstacles must still be cleared away before more people can easily participate. First and foremost, facilities are needed. Although sports centers are appearing that cater to the physical needs of people with handicaps--with, for instance, swimming pools in which the water depth can be adjusted--they are still uncommon. And camping facilities often have parking lots located far from the camp areas, with gravel roads and steps that make wheelchair access impossible.

Another problem is a shortage of qualified instructors. Although approximately 8,000 people have been certified as general sports instructors by the Japanese Sports Association for the Disabled, skilled instructors for specific sports are trained independently by athletic associations and volunteer groups. And custom-made sporting goods generally cost many times more than standard items. Much of the financial burden for this training and equipment is borne by the physically handicapped people and volunteers themselves. Legal and institutional restrictions, such as the physical criteria that must be met to obtain a boat operator's license, provide even more obstacles.

To remove these physical and institutional barriers, public awareness of the rights of people with physical handicaps must also be improved. Much remains to be done to allow the disabled to enjoy sporting activities as easily as everyone else.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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