On the front lines of education, there are calls for more comprehensive care for children with developmental disabilities. According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the percentage of "schoolchildren who are now studying in ordinary classes but may have a developmental disability and need special educational support" is 6.5%. This translates into about two students in every class. These students comprise a minority in the class, and Prof. Teruyama is using a cultural anthropology-based approach to conduct research on topics such as the situations these children are placed in.
It is relatively recent that the term "developmental disability" has come into use, perhaps 10, or 20 years at most. Naturally, the phenomenon didn’t just suddenly appear. In educational settings, every class has always had children who require extra attention; those who can't settle down or are slow at learning. Through a 2012 survey by MEXT, it was estimated that 6.5% of students in an ordinary class have a developmental disability requiring special educational support.
Due to her parents' work, Prof. Teruyama was a returnee from abroad, and this sparked her interest in research on other cultures. In studying cultural anthropology as an international student in the graduate school of the University of Michigan, she selected "Japan viewed from the outside" as the subject of her research. Her experience of being unable to fit in at school in Japan as a child returning from abroad is part of the background leading to her research on minorities in school education in Japan. At the time she chose the theme of her research, however, the minorities which stood out in Japanese classrooms were not returnees from abroad (during the boom of Japanese firms expanding overseas), but rather students diagnosed with developmental disabilities.
The Act on Support for Persons with Developmental Disabilities was enacted in 2005. Until that time, developmental disabilities not involving intellectual disabilities were ineligible for support. The other disabilities were "invisible," so to speak. In conducting her surveys, Prof. Teruyama noticed that many children and their parents live so as to hide their disability and thereby get along in school and society. As a result, however, they all felt difficulty in their way of life. Due to enactment of the Act on Support, the term "developmental disabilities" came to be more widely recognized, and progress was made in creating an environment where students can more easily receive support and consideration. However, support in the school setting tends to be focused on completing the course of study and employment assistance. Even though other forms of psychological fulfillment—such as family, friends, love, and hobbies—are important for peoples’ happiness, public support does not take into account such extras.
It has become more common recently for the involved persons, i.e., the person with the developmental disability and his or her family, to actively speak up. Amid that trend, as a researcher Prof. Teruyama struggled with her position as a non-involved person gathering the views of the involved. What she eventually decided was that her own role is to illuminate the peculiarities of Japanese culture by investigating the situation minorities are placed in in Japanese society from the perspective of cultural anthropology. She did not arrive at this decision immediately. Through her involvement in research on people with disabilities, she also came across the problems of hikikomori (those who withdraw from society) and NEETs (those not in education, employment, or training), and she says that a major factor was learning that all of the people involved feel some difficulty in their way of life. This led her to speculate that perhaps these issues are linked with the distinguishing characteristics of Japanese culture.
Starting a few years ago, Prof. Teruyama broadened the scope of her research from students to teachers. Working jointly with two other researchers, she began surveys of teachers with disabilities who work in elementary, junior, and senior high schools. The three researchers acquired a grant-in-aid for scientific research, and completed a life history investigation into16 teachers from all over Japan. They also successfully crowdfunded publication of their results. There are various types of disabilities—visual, auditory, physical, and developmental—and various associated circumstances. However, it was found that, at workplaces where "perfection" is expected, everyone blazes their own path. The issue which has surfaced there is the “reasonable accommodation” required by the Act on Employment Promotion etc. of Persons with Disabilities, which was amended in 2016. People with disabilities have a right to demand consideration, but what sort of accommodation should employers and society provide? And in environments where it is difficult to speak out in the first place, what sort of accommodation will help us to draw on those with silent voices? In Japan, there exists an implicit cultural background where "not troubling other people" is regarded as a virtue. This is an opportunity for a cultural anthropologist to show her skills.
Prof. Teruyama arrived at the University of Tsukuba three years ago, and based on the key words "library, communication, and minority" she has also started research on "human library" events. These are events which began in Denmark in 2000. People belonging to minorities act like "books" and are "loaned out," and their stories are listened to, either one-on-one or in a group. The event aims to educate people on the nature of being a minority, and reduce social prejudice, but it can also be an opportunity for reflection on whether the "majority" is something real to begin with. Prof. Teruyama is sketching out a concept of treating "dialogue with minorities" as a general theme, and expanding from there by linking the research of the past with the research of the future.
Prof. Teruyama tells how, thanks to being a returnee from abroad, she developed a perspective of looking objectively at the nature of being a minority
Article by Science Communicator at the Office of Public Relations
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