The story behind my NY Times letter
Did you see it?
My letter that ran in Thursday’s New York Times?
Yes, it was easy to miss. You can read it here, in which I’m responding to an article that criticizes Japan for not doing enough to make the country more accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Now I haven’t been to Japan in more than a decade, but I detected a patronizing tone in the article that I heard occasionally from fellow Americans during the near decade I spent there in the 1990s and early 2000s. Something along the lines of how Westerners are so much more enlightened than the Japanese. In the article, I was particularly struck by the criticism that Japan still educates students with disabilities in separate classrooms.
I mean, we in the United States might have FAPE and LRE (Free and Appropriate Education and Least Restrictive Environment), but that doesn’t mean that all children with disabilities are being educated alongside their neurotypical or even able-bodied peers. And there are plenty of private institutions that are not accessible to individuals with disabilities here in the States, so we should be mindful not to criticize elsewhere without thinking of all the work that we need to be doing here as well.
That’s what prompted me to interrupt my holiday packing last week and write the letter.
Of course, I was also thinking about my own time in Tokyo when I became temporarily disabled due to my own clumsiness and over-inflated ego.
It was 1997, and I was on a mission to become not only proficient in the Japanese language but also the culture, so I decided to take up the tsutsumi-daiko, the hand-held drum, which is a central instrument in kabuki. I scheduled my first lesson during my lunch hour, since the sensei’s studio was walking distance from the Japan Times, where I worked.
It turned out that my new teacher first wanted to play a piece for me, so I sat dutifully in seiza style, with my feet neatly tucked under my buttocks. At that point, I had lived in Japan for five years, so was fairly accustomed to sitting like that. . . at least for short periods of time. But my teacher’s playing went on for some time, and when he was done and motioned for me to stand up, I did so and proceeded to fall forward, nearly crushing his priceless instrument.
While I had done my very best to stay alert during his playing, my legs had fallen asleep, so much so that I had no control when I attempted to stand.
Though I was in searing pain, I put on a good show and gambared, as the Japanese say (poorly translated as to “grin and bear it”), through it. I returned to my office, where my editor proceeded to massage my foot, which was kind but contraindicated. An X-ray that evening indicated that I had fractured a metatarsal bone.
The weeks that followed were challenging and expensive, as I took taxis everywhere. That’s why I was so thrilled to read that in today’s Tokyo there are elevators in practically every train station. This wasn’t the case when I lived there and had to call on friends to help me with banal tasks like grocery shopping and laundry.
I was still on crutches a couple weeks later when I went to synagogue and heard someone new chanting Torah. I later saw it was a handsome man, new in the community. So at the kiddush lunch, I hobbled over to him on my crutches and told him what a beautiful voice he had, and, well, a year later we got engaged.
Lucky for me (and whatever community we’ve been part of!) I’ve gotten to hear Jeremy chant Torah as well as lead high holiday services in such amazing places as Nantucket, Tokyo, New York City, and for the past 7 years, Fire Island, a dreamy paradise off the coast of Long Island, from where I’m now writing this.
Sometimes the best things in life come from inauspicious beginnings.
Meanwhile, my experience on crutches was a brief window into how difficult it is to live with a mobility impairment. Any progress we make--in the interest of serving individuals with disabilities--should be celebrated, with the understanding that there’s always more work to do.