IAADP Says Konnichiwa to Japan

by Devon Wilkins

"Moto wants representatives from other countries, too," Ed and Toni Eames informed me when I visited them in Fresno in February of this year, "so we thought you might like to join us."

But it wasn't until Moto Arima, Executive Director of Japan Hearing Dogs for Deaf People handed me $2,400 in Canadian funds at IAADP's conference in Vancouver last April that I realized the full enormity of the trip we were about to embark on.

The opportunity for Japanese assistance dog users with counterparts from Canada, England, and America wasn't the only reason that Moto planned the conference. Her government had very recently passed a law giving hearing and service dog partners the same legislative protection that guide dog handlers had enjoyed for years. Moto and her staff wanted to use the conference as an opportunity to further educate the Japanese public about the law, and to encourage politicians to make even more sweeping changes when the law comes up for review in another year's time.

Joining Ed and Latrell, Toni and Keebler, and Oak and me on the trip was IAADP board member Jill Exposito and her hearing dog Uriah, Janice Justice from Portland, Oregon and her hearing dog Cajun, Janice's friend Lisa Gillis, and service dog partner Allen Parton and his wife Sandra from England. British quarantine restrictions made it impossible for Endal to accompany Allen, and everyone missed him.

On October 3rd, I flew from my home in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada to meet Toni and Ed in Fresno, California. Just before leaving for Los Angeles on the morning of the 7th, we gave our dogs half their normal amount of food. After one final relief break in L.A. for pooches and humans alike, we were ready to begin our 12-hour flight to Tokyo. Like many assistance dogs before them, Oak, Keebler, and Latrell suffered no ill-effects from the long flight, and neither did Uriah or Cajun. Aside from rousing themselves occasionally to crunch on ice cubes, or to say hello to friendly crew members, our dogs passed the time in peaceful sleep.

Tokyo is 16 hours ahead of Fresno, 13 hours ahead of Collingwood, and eight hours ahead of England. When we all congregated for our first press conference at Narita Airport, it was close to 5 p.m. on October 8th.

The next day's trip to Matsumoto where the conference was to be held should have taken us five hours, but the heavy rains associated with the approaching typhoon lengthened our ride by an hour. Matsumoto is located in what is known as the Alps or backbone of Japan, approximately an hour and a half from where the Winter Olympic Games were held in 1994.

Following a second press conference on the morning of the 10th, we had a most enjoyable lunch with six Japanese assistance dog partners, but we were careful to keep our dogs apart, because we were under what was referred to as home quarantine.

The afternoon was spent with 100 inquisitive school children. Eddo, as Moto called him, along with Latrell, demonstrated the training that guide dogs receive by following Moto around the stage, past obstacles and all. Janice's hearing dog, Cajun earned a round of applause by allowing himself to be coaxed to sing the song that had won him the runner up prize in the Singing Animal contest sponsored several years ago by Bayer. Uriah demonstrated the training that hearing dogs receive by alerting Jill to the sound of a timer. Meanwhile, Oak turned himself completely up-side-down, and snored, concealing absolutely nothing from his young audience.

The conference itself took place on the 11th, 12th, and the morning of the 13th in Matsumoto's brand new opera house. The first morning was taken up by several introductory speeches, including a brief welcome by Ed. Participating in an assistance dog parade in the afternoon, we were again met by mass media. Progress along the eight-block route was slow, and out of concern for our safety, our guide dogs wanted to move us up onto the sidewalk, but gentle encouragement kept them in line. In addition to Keebler, Latrell, Oak, Uriah and Cajun, many disabled Japanese people walked with their guide, hearing and service dogs. Sandra described the t-shirts worn by many of the assistance dogs. Human shirts were put on the dogs and tied to make them fit. Apparently, this cuts down on unwanted dog hair floating around. Many townspeople joined the festivities with pet dogs. Others lined the sidewalks, and we waved as we passed, and said Konnichiwa-(good day) to them. That evening, we made it into several newspapers, and onto Japan national news.

The highlight of the morning of the 12th was Ed's speech in which he compared the independent living model which is growing in popularity in North America to the medical model which is currently in use in Japan. Apparently, disabled people seeking service dogs there have to be evaluated by a team of occupational and physical therapists and doctors to determine what tasks a dog could and should perform and what training program would be approved.

After lunch, we were back on stage again to serve on a panel with Japanese assistance dog partners. There was a deaf couple who worked with one hearing dog, a wheelchair user with a service dog and two blind men with guide dogs. The discussion centered on several themes. There is now a law in Japan recognizing the right of a disabled person to be accompanied by an assistance dog, but there are no penalties for those public entities who still choose to deny access. Most of the audience was for education, not punishment. On our team, Allen and Janice also felt education would do the job! The other big discussion centered on the disabled person's responsibility to clean the hotel room of dog hair before checking out. A nondisabled member of the audience said we should be grateful that a hotel allows us to stay, and that stimulated much talk about civil rights, not gratitude. Toni got a laugh when she stated her luggage was heavy enough without having to carry a vacuum cleaner! Some Japanese guide dog partners said they were taught to carry a roll of tape to pick up dog hair, but we questioned how they would know where it was.

As the conference drew to a close, all of us encouraged the Japanese assistance dog partners to make use of the contact information they had been given so that the dialog can continue.

We arrived back in Tokyo later that afternoon, just in time to take part in a bumper to bumper rush hour.

Our first meeting the next morning was at the Ministry of Health where we talked with the chief officer. We were able to discuss with him, and later, other politicians our thoughts about freedom of choice and movement. Our group was cohesive and supplemented one another's message. The final congressman we met with happens to be the honorary president of the support dog association. All of the politicians we spoke to appeared to be squarely in the corner of Japanese assistance dog partners, but only time will tell whether the comments they made were actual commitments to the cause, or nothing more than courteous acquiescence.

On the whole, we felt that our trip to Japan was a positive experience. There weren't any ground-breaking or earth-shaking developments; that's true. But I call to mind an old Chinese proverb which says that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Reprinted with permission from the author, Devon Wilkins of The Harness, www.theharness.ca