Current Situations and Issues of the Deaf-Blind Community in Japan.
64th IFLA General Conference, August 16 - August 21, 1998
I am greatly thankful and happy to be given the wonderful opportunity to participate in the 64th IFLA General Conference and to present my paper on "Information Needs of the Deaf-Blind". I have faith that the Conference helps to make the library community aware on assuring the information as well as providing a better service to the deaf-blind.
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, their nationwide research statistics shows that the number of deaf-blind people in Japan is estimated between 13,000 to 24,000. However, the Japan Deaf-Blind Association  has identified only 434 deaf-blind people as of May 1998. In other words, a lot of deaf-blind people are either at home or in institutions, having difficulties to participate in the social activities.
A variety of communication manners is exercised amongst the deaf-blind community such as touch sign language, typing with braille directly on their fingers (finger braille), writing characters on their palm (print on palm), finger spelling, writing on paper, etc. Some deaf-blind people are able to articulate several communication manners, depending upon their audiences.
Most of deaf-blind children in Japan are generally educated either in a school for the blind or in a school for the deaf with other students who have a visual disability or a hearing disability. After graduating from the school, some of these people may be employed in a special workshop where simple job is provided, and some are massage workers, but the majority seems like still unemployed. As we have no special vocational rehabilitation center for the deaf-blind at present, the training is usually provided in institutions for people with disabilities other than the deaf-blind.
The welfare for the deaf-blind took a slow movement compared to other fields of welfare of people with disabilities. Since 1990, we, the deaf-blind people started becoming more active, establishing groups of ourselves, and trying to participate in the society across the country.
Difficulties of the Deaf-Blind
What is so difficult to live with deaf-blindness? What can be done for deaf-blind people so that they do not feel the inconvenience throughout their lives?
Needless to say, deaf-blind people are not able to see completely or have a very low vision, and at the same time cannot hear completely or are hard-of-hearing. Since both ears and eyes, which are important organs for information, are damaged at the same time, it is difficult to gain access to information. Deaf-blind people are considered as people with serious information disability and are so different from people with one single disability such as either blindness or deafness. Deaf-blind people cannot communicate with their voice as people with a visual impairment can. They cannot receive visual information such as characters, visual image and landscapes through their eyes as people with hearing impairment can. In addition to lack of information, deaf-blind people who cannot communicate with the world outside may fall into mental loneliness, which may accumulate stress and in some cases result in serious mental crisis.
Of course, overwhelming flood of information might be a problem, however, deaf-blind people are hardly exposed to the 'air' of information. Human beings should die without 'air'; therefore, overcoming the information disability is an important issue for the deaf-blind to live an active independent life in the society.
Information Media for Deaf-Blind People
A variety of information/telecommunication media such as television, radio, newspaper, telephone, fax machine, personal computer, etc. are available. Lately, portable telecommunication equipments including cellular phone has spread out quickly and widely. However, none of those are easily accessible for deaf-blind people. Since all of them carry visual and/or aural information, they are useless or meaningless for the deaf-blind who do not have access to visual or aural media.
As I referred earlier, there are variety of information media and the world is filled with transmission of information. For example, there are increasing number of TV channels including satellite broadcasting. The competition among TV programs is also increasing. However, for the deaf-blind people sitting in front of a TV unit, the unit itself is only a useless box. So is a telephone. There is no telephone system that deaf-blind people can use. Even the TDD system for the deaf, which is available in the U.S. and in Sweden, is not available in Japan.
Under the circumstances, are you aware of the existence of braille and magnified characters which is accessible by the deaf-blind without an assistance of someone else? Most of people with deaf-blindness can read and write with either braille or enlarged letters. Through reading and writing, deaf-blind people may have access to information around them. Thus braille, for the deaf-blind who has already acquired braille literacy, and magnified characters, for partially sighted deaf people, are acting as most important bridge to information. I believe that, if a deaf-blind person may read and write either braille or enlarged characters, he or she may have access to information even though it is not sufficient.
Available information resources in braille are as follows. (Large print
availability is far limited compared with braille. We must raise awareness
on demands for large print.)
Even though it is not sufficient, I told you that braille enables the deaf-blind gain access to information. However, we should not forget those who are not born deaf-blind. Some of them are unable to use either braille or large print. In addition to them, number of deaf-blind people educated at schools for the deaf are not good at reading/writing a text. Those who do not use either braille or enlarged characters need to depend on information interpreters and assistants including his or her family members or friends. The information interpreter and assistant has to deliver information to the client by making use of the best way(s) of communication, which the client familiar with, such as printing on palm, sign language or gesture, queued speech, etc. For instance, the information interpreter/assistant interprets a text in one of those communication methods to deliver information to the patron deaf-blind. With the information interpreter/assistant, deaf-blind people will be able to call their friends, send fax, and go to cinemas or concerts.
I always live with braille books and magazines within my reach. While I am on transportation, eating alone, or going to bed, I am always with my braille materials. It is strange but I feel alive when I am touching braille or simply being with braille materials. I realized from my own experiences that braille is of significant importance for the deaf-blind.
Nowadays, there are good news for the hearing blind such as increase of talking books or screen reading software development. However, there is not much going on for braille developments. Even decline of braille readership is concerned. There are many low vision-deaf people who require large print. I would like to urge you to increase large print book collections. Of course information interpreters/assistants are most important patners to gain access to information.
Braille, large print and interpreter/assistant; starting with these three essentials, let us move forward for "participation of the deaf-blind in information society". Hoping to have a new information media for the deaf-blind.
Translated from original Japanese text by: Hiromi Morikawa, JSRPD & Hiroshi Kawamura, SRPD
The Deaf-Blind Association of Japan was established in 1991 to provide
the activities and service for deaf-blind people throughout the nation.
The Association entrusted by the Japanese Government has 6 staff (3 full-timers)
and runs such activities with the help of Government grants, trusts, and
other endowments as follows: