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More employment opportunities for Japanese with severe disabilities (January.2002)

Written by Ms. Mieko Hayashi, Representative of Cooperative Alternatives Unifica and translated by Japanese Society for Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities.

The change of my life started with a phone call
"If you really insist not to buy a PC, I will give you my old one so that you can access my web page."

With this message, an old personal computer was sent from a friend of mine. That was the beginning of everything.

I was just an ordinary housewife until I became physically disabled. Since that time I have had to struggle to get all the information I need for my survival. At that time the telephone and the fax machine were the only ways to get information, and with the valuable information I obtained by contacting the doctors in my neighborhood and the Japanese Council of Social Welfare, I was eventually able to find the information I needed most. It took an extraordinary amount of time and was very expensive to obtain information.

However the PC that my friend sent to me invited me to explore the fascinating universe of the world wide web through a connection to the Internet. This was a wonderful, free and an astonishingly wide world. It did not have any geographical or physical barriers. My world had surely expanded, because I could get all information I needed through the Internet without fail. However, when I looked at the situation around me, I found that many fellow handicapped people had to live without any access to information, facing more or less a violation of their basic human rights.

Employment and independence
I myself learned how to live an independent life from disabled people nationwide through the Internet. Among the information that was especially important to me was the information concerning employment. To people with disability like myself, working means not only earning an income, but also developing the self-confidence that we can make a contribution to society. And that gives us a strong source of power to overcome the various difficulties that we experience, because of our handicaps. That is why getting a job can bring about a complete change in our perspective on life.

Since I myself was a housewife, who had never worked before, I didn't have any idea where to begin to get a job. In this long-lasting and serious recession in Japan, even many non-disabled workers have been made redundant by their companies. Many employers believe that it is not necessary for disabled people to work. In fact, when I registered at "Hello Work" (the public employment security office) to find a job, the person in charge told me in no uncertain terms, that I had better not expect any job offers. So I had better think very carefully if there was something I could do. Finally, I came up with the idea that I could write travel reports about sightseeing along the Shimanto River for wheelchair users, based on my personal experience of sending letters to people about the abundant nature in Shikoku island, as a volunteer writer. My reports were published by a new lifestyle magazine for persons with disability. That was a beginning of my career as a writer.

Working in a team
My first job involved simply writing articles, but my work expanded to include text editing, graphic design as well as translations. I felt tremendous difficulty in handling all these enormous tasks by myself, so I invited a couple of people who had very similar ideas to me about raising awareness of the importance of independent living for disabled persons and had the required computer skills and we began working together.

"Working together" did not mean that we rented an office. All assignments were undertaken at home, sending and receiving data via the Internet. Our clients placed the orders directly to me, so I always contacted them when the actual person in charge had any questions.

After about one year working together in this way, our team was created. We call it the "Office Line". With my skills and expertise developed through working as a member of "Office Line", Cooperative Alternatives Unifica asked me to establish and manage their office.

Cooperative Alternatives Unifica was established
A volunteer organization, which is now operating as an NGO in Hakodate, in Hokkaido far away from Kochi Prefecture where I live, was struggling for the realization as practical use of information for independence for persons with disabilities. They were discussing the need to demonstrate successful examples to society by the disabled to change fixed ideas of both disabled and non-disabled persons that social welfare services should be provided and to support themselves towards imminent aging society. In order to do so, they decided to establish an enterprise operated by disabled people themselves. But they could not find a disabled individual who had sufficient skills as a representative in Honshu, the main island of Japan, to say nothing of the smaller island of Hokkaido.

At that time, because I felt too much responsibility as the team leader of a private firm I was thinking of retiring from Office Line. That was when the representative for the volunteer organization called me to talk about the Unifica project and to ask if I could work as its representative. Through numerous talks with him I realized that I didn't need to have heavy responsibility for the new enterprise and I could make full use of my previous experience. I also realized that I could establish a system to deal with the employment and the independence of disabled persons, which I have been dreaming of ever since I became disabled myself.

Finally, I decided to accept their offer and started working hard to establish the business cooperative, which led me to work for 24 hours a day.

The present system of Unifica
I could easily handle paper work and negotiations for the legal registration of Unifica with the help of the Kochi Prefectural Federation of Small Business Associations. However, raising funds for its establishment was another story. We had great difficulty in raising funds because no money was raised unless we finished the whole amount of works that volunteers prepared for us. So we had to work in front of computers for 18 hours a day at worst.

Well, we survived the tough time of its establishment, and gained confidence, realizing that we can do anything if we try very hard, since disabilities are no longer barriers to us.

The new cooperative consists of seven people; three patients with intractable diseases, a person with cerebral palsy, a person with spinal cord injury, person with damage to cervical vertebrae and non-disable supporter. Those disabled people are staying at home or institutions in various areas of Japan.

We are providing information and advice on daily life and the related assistive equipment for the disabled, elderly persons and caretakers as well as carrying out support of the developments and marketing research. Members are doing their respective job in accordance with the schedule the head office determined. All work is conducted by e-mail or exchanging data.

Unifica in the future
Unifica was established as a model case of a group of disabled people who can successfully lead independent lives although they have disabilities.

If this kind of self-help system is promoted in society, the opportunities of employment for people with severe disabilities will significantly increase. Because getting jobs are now considered to be impossible to those people.

PCs and the Internet have become so widespread in recent years that the related jobs could allow severely disabled people to enter the competitive labor market. If those who have sufficient ability still do not have any chances to get a job, it would be a tremendous loss to society as a whole. And it should be one of the major problems we have to solve urgently, considering the shortage of the labor force in the coming aging society like Japan. As a cooperative operated by severely disabled individuals like ourselves, we are determined to continue our efforts to enhance our social status to build up a system in which we are considered to be reliable and competent-human resources in society.

We work hard to provide information to meet the needs for the elderly, making full use of our physical data and know-how of living as persons with severe disabilities. The more disabled people work, the greater will be the common awareness of the people as tremendously valuable social and human assets and I am sure we can change the negative recognition of "disability" into a positive one.