The Ability to Inspire

At ASIJ, our mission is to foster a community of inquisitive learners and independent thinkers, inspired to be their best selves and empowered to make a difference. During the months of February and March, the high school student clubs COSA (Community Oriented Student Action) and SAGE (Students Advocating for Gender Equality) partnered with the Japan Center to live out our mission and learn from those who are differently-abled. Through these informative experiences, many of our students now feel more empowered to promote and initiate inclusivity, kindness and a more accessible community for all.

The COSA community service club welcomed students from the Tsukuba Special Needs Education School for the Visually Impaired as part of the club’s ongoing collaborations, which include English conversation practice via Skype. The visiting students participated in Jessica Knapp’s Personal Fitness class and shared with Rebecca Gessert’s Psychology class on how to use writing tools (braille) for the visually impaired.

Yuka Ashida, a senior at ASIJ, has been in COSA for three years and was excited to finally meet with the students she had been helping teach English to over Skype for the past three years. “As we were saying our farewell, one of the students who was sitting at my table had tears in her eyes which was very moving, and I was extremely glad that we had the opportunity to meet them this year. I truly hope that this will become a tradition and that the ASIJ and Tsukuba students will stay in touch,” Yuka noted.

A couple of weeks later, the COSA club welcomed two wheelchair-based basketball players, Rie Odajima (GRACE), Shinnosuke Morooka (Tokyo Fighters B.C.) and GRACE team coach, Shiho Nagano, in an effort to help students better recognize the possibilities for all people, regardless of their physical abilities. Rie is a national team member for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. The professional athletes provided a special high school assembly presentation with some hands-on wheelchair basketball experience for our varsity high school students. Shiori Harima, a freshman at ASIJ, translated the basketball player’s personal introductions for the audience and was inspired by one of the women in particular. “During her introduction, Ms. Odajima mentioned how though her injury would be unfortunate to most, she considers herself lucky for it as it allowed her to face new exciting experiences. Her ability to have a positive outlook on everything was very uplifting—I really hope to apply this perspective to my life as well.” Shiori’s admiration for the inspiring athletes didn’t stop there. She was reminded that even though “we often blame our genetics and training history for being unable to excel, I believe watching these demonstrations inspired us to work harder and helped us understand that this is not an excuse.

In addition to the high school visit, COSA students arranged for, introduced and provided translations for the three guests to present to Aaron Rogers’ middle school PE classes and Andrew Faulkner’s third and fifth-grade PE classes

There are so many others pushing themselves to make impossibilities possible despite physical challenges.” Lisa Neureiter, a junior, was proud of what the community service club had accomplished. “The turnout was amazing. So many students had come even though there was no requirement to. It became apparent to me how effective clubs can be in educating students about such important topics, like disability awareness.”

The special guests for this year’s SAGE Conference, which coincided with International Women’s Day, was Paralympic Support Center’s Eri Yamamoto MacDonald, a para-athlete powerlifter who is training for the 2020 Paralympics, and Kyoko Inahara, a Japanese teacher at The American School in Japan for the past 19 years. In an engaging panel discussion with Eri and Kyoko, the two women discussed the intersectionality of diversity and disability in their own lives as women and wheelchair users. The main themes explored during this panel were how a community can become more adaptive and how each person present could be more proactive in eliminating unhealthy boundaries and overcoming communal struggles in society. The students who attended this event left with a greater understanding of those who are differently-abled and wanted to begin working on ensuring a greater inclusivity for all people. For Sasha Sasanuma, a senior and SAGE member, the panel discussion reminded her to be more conscious of the spaces around her and the people who might not be. “Currently, ASIJ students are able to empathize with and advocate for issues that we see around our community, but what are we lacking? We are blind to issues that are not so obvious in our own everyday lives. This includes those who are apart of the differently-abled community. For example, are the spaces around us inaccessible to those who are physically handicapped?”

Following this panel discussion, in an all elementary school gathering, Eri shared her “Stories of Character, Courage, Compassion: Para-athlete Career and Paralympics 2020”. Emceeing the event were grade five Japanese students, Konomi Watanabe, Mion Fukikoshi, Kate Clement, and Mio Manabe, who studied about the Paralympics as part of class. Eri shared her personal stories of overcoming the fear of water, struggles of injury and obstacles of everyday life. Students were also shown the inspiring Paralympic promotion video “Yes, I can” and have vowed to support all athletes who are training very hard for the Paralympics by watching the Paralympics next year, when the games open on August 25th, 2020!

Joshua, Kyoko’s son and a sophomore high school student at ASIJ, believes that “it is our duty to create an environment that is more inclusive and more empathetic. This includes the proper etiquette when encountering people who are differently-abled and how to politely offer to help. While I don’t have the answers as to building a community that is friendly to all, I believe that dialogue is important, as it is the first step in making inclusive societies a norm.”

Our preconceived notions in society can force many people into being a one-dimensional caricature of who they truly are. But through this partnership between the Japan Center, SAGE, and COSA, our community has gained a much deeper understanding of the abilities each person has to offer this world.