About growth through experience

JDF volunteers were coming every week, and the trainees started opening up to them. They started telling those volunteers about their experiences, because all they could talk about was what they themselves had gone through.

I feel like this helped our trainees grow. They would be telling the exact same story to a different person, but they would tell it differently from the previous week.

You might speak about the same experience in a different way as time goes by. That’s natural, whether you’re disabled or not.

They had this invisible trauma from the disaster, but as they talked about it they were healed and learned to accept the experience more.

For example, this is something I think still gets to a lot of our female trainees. After the disaster, they started carrying a lot of things around because they’re worried an earthquake might come while they’re out. We see that, and we realize it’s still affecting them. Because their houses were washed away and their treasures disappeared.

But as they talked to different people each week about the feeling of losing their homes and other important things, they eventually began to accept it.

They couldn’t accept it at first, but as they continued talking to the different people who came each week, they were able to digest it and overcome it gradually. Though of course there was no changing what had happened.

One trainee who used to have trouble communicating with people of the opposite sex now enjoys taking photos with them after repeating the process of asking people to be in his photos. He matured and got better at communication.

I think it was a really precious experience for our trainees because they could learn while interacting with others after the disaster.

About future activities

Thanks to the liaison meetings for disaster affected vocational support centers for the disabled, we were connected with the Able Art Company (now Able Art Japan), which shares the artwork of disabled people with communities. They admired Nozomi’s passion, and with them we decided to create something combining paper making with a symbol of Minami-sanriku.

Since the Moai statue was coming to Minami-sanriku again, we had our disabled trainees draw Moai illustrations, then choose one drawing to make into products. Able Art Company then started by making towels. The project moved along at a steady pace after that.

But we can’t rely too much on these Moai goods as our leading products. We have to develop new items to expand our product scope, or our sales will peter out.

This is a severe world, and it might be naive of me, but I do hope to pass on this legacy to society. These wonderful goods produced by disabled people were actually co-created with so many people who have supported us.

My ideal is for people to pay for the products simply because they’re good products, not out of sympathy for disabled people. Then afterwards I want them to be like, “Wow, this was made in a place like that!?” Those are the kinds of products we want to make.

A lot of our trainees aren’t used to being recognized, so by having them create these products, we hope to break down misunderstandings and spread awareness about disabled people. We want to show people that actually, there’s not much disabled people can’t do.

All people hear is the word “disabled,” and they immediately think it must be awful.

No matter how hard we’ve tried, there are still things people just don’t properly understand about the reality of disabled people, and that’s our challenge. So we’re doing our best to increase social awareness through our sales of these paper products for that purpose.

We hope to continue to grow along with our trainees, without forgetting to be grateful for everyone who’s gotten involved with Nozomi.

A place where people can visit everyday

As I see everybody getting older, it makes me feel that quite long time has passed since the disaster, even though at the same time it seems like a flash.


Were there any changes in the trainees like Ai or Shoko after the disaster?

Kumai: One thing is that members have changed, but more than that some trainees like Ai has started taking leadership. She was 20 years old and soon will become 26.

What the previous director and I tried to achieve was to make our facility a place where persons with disabilities, who otherwise stayed at their houses, could come every day.

Just before the disaster, we started to receive young ones who had recently graduated from special-needs schools. That made the group at our facility a good mixture of long timers and new comers. Most of our trainees suffer serious disabilities but they also grow quite well. For example, ones who used to have self-harming behaviors grew and started to take leadership roles.


These are changes that have been formed through group works, I guess.

Kumai: I remember some of them were always sleeping and not doing their tasks. We can’t tell how young people grow.

Shoko’s future

Before coming to Orion, Shoko didn’t like going out and avoided interacting with others. But she grew a lot through her disaster experience.

Do you feel like you’ve changed since the disaster?

Shoko: Um, I don’t really feel like I have.

Kumai: She used to be a normal office worker. Then when she was 25, she developed a blood vessel disease. Around ten years after that, she started coming here (to Orion).

For those ten years before she came to Orion, apparently she didn’t want to see anyone. But then someone strongly recommended us to her, saying it would be better if she had friends. I guess she was pretty reluctant to come.


So going out was a really big decision for her.

Kumai: Yes, definitely.

Because of the disaster, all kinds of people came to interview her. That helped her get better at interacting with people. She doesn’t even seem to mind getting her picture taken now. I think she’s really changed.

Shoko’s parents are getting on in years now, so we’re trying to encourage her to be independent. Right now we’re helping her prepare to stay here for short periods.

Lifestyle changes after the disaster

How has your life changed since the disaster?

Before the disaster, I lived a normal life with my family even though I couldn’t see or hear well, but after the disaster the biggest change was that I could no longer move around my home and my neighborhood by feel like I used to, even though I couldn’t see much.  Even after I left the shelter, for around a year I couldn’t get around because I was in a new environment.

After that I thought, I can’t go on like this, and searched the Internet for “visually impaired people and jobs.” At that time I could still see my phone screen. The first thing that came up was the Sendai Support Center for the Late Onset Visually Impaired. It was near the place I had lived in Sendai for four years as a student, so I decided to go check it out. They told me a lot of things, like that my current vision would raise the degree of blindness indicated in my disability identification booklet, and that I could apply for a cane.

After that I received cane training and computer career training, and even started going to braille training. After I started going to braille training, I got direct access to information on fellow visually impaired people.

The Miyagi Prefecture Visually Impaired Information Center gave me all kinds of information on visually impaired people, and I also heard from some visually impaired people directly. Being able to access this information was quite a big deal. It helped me develop a positive attitude and move forward a little at the time, thinking about what to do and my needs in each moment while also keeping the future in mind. That was really major.

I went to braille training for around half a year, but I’m hard of hearing while most visually impaired people can hear, so I sometimes can’t keep up with the speed of conversations and have trouble understanding when I’m with visually impaired people. At the time I wasn’t wearing a hearing aid and had more trouble hearing than I do now, so it was hard for me to get information. So I sometimes just pretended to understand based on the few words I did manage to catch.

Then a staff member at the Visually Impaired Information Center told me that there were other people in Miyagi who were both visually and hearing impaired, and that there was an organization called the “Miyagi Deaf-Blind Friendship Association” (hereafter “Friendship Association.”) That was the first time I realized that I’m deaf-blind. When I participated in a mixer, an interpreter specialized in assisting deaf-blind people accompanied me. They interpreted what people were saying orally, and that made me realize just how much I’d been unable to hear and just how much information I’d been missing until then. I was so grateful for the interpretation, and it made me feel so comfortable and much more cheerful.

I also experienced using a guide dog. I don’t actually use a guide dog now, but the experience connected me with all kinds of information. I also met other deaf-blind people and learned that there are all kinds of ways to communicate even if you can’t hear or see.

For example, some deaf-blind people are hard of hearing but can use a hearing aid to have close-up conversations in quiet places, whereas others can hear sounds but can’t make out words. Then I decided I wanted to communicate directly with deaf-blind people who could use finger spelling, so I learned to finger spell the alphabet. I learned to tell them “Good morning (showing actual finger spelling),” at around that speed. I’m also learning a little sign language, a few words at a time. I also learned a communication method called finger braille. I’m still practicing it. I’ve learned about all kinds of communication methods, and learned that there are other deaf-blind people like me. By participating in activities with them, I’m able to participate in society centering around those activities. Now I’m continuing those activities while thinking about all kinds of things like maybe becoming independent someday– I mean, there are things I can do alone and things I can’t, so I’m thinking about how to go on with my life with the support and cooperation of society, friends, my community, and all these people I’m connected with.


So your life has completely changed because of the disaster.

It has. My living environment has changed over and over, and sometimes people have said to me, “How nice you’ve moved into a new place,” but sometimes I’ve struggled with it. It’s really hard because I have to start from scratch learning to recognize my environment. But even so, through the activities of the Friendship Association, I’ve gone from being unable to do anything since becoming deaf-blind to having opportunities to learn in seminars and going to Tokyo, and even to Kobe and Shizuoka for national meetings. I’m able to do things that I would have thought impossible not long ago. I’ve met friends and supporters all around Japan, and now we socialize and exchange information. I’ve also been invited to speak at seminars in other prefectures, so my world has really expanded. Just going out and getting one piece of information led to all these connections. Visually impaired people are also called information impaired, and of course that applies to deaf-blind people as well. Rather than just asking myself why I can’t do this or that and being negative, I want to keep learning to find concrete solutions and think about what I can or can’t do or explain. I’ve learned to think like this thanks to the Friendship Association’s activities and all the people I’ve met.


How would you like abled people to offer their help or support when they see a disabled person, such as a deaf-blind person, in their neighborhood who appears to be having trouble?

Visually impaired people and deaf-blind people will be startled if you suddenly talk to them. So it’s best to gently tap them on the shoulder before speaking. Then you can say, “I’m so-and-so, and I’m wondering if you’re having trouble? Do you need any help?” It’s best to understand the person’s situation first, then provide them with whatever assistance they need. Deaf-blind people are also hearing impaired, so you need to find out how to communicate with them. I don’t think awareness and understanding of deaf-blind people has spread much in society yet, and part of the reason I’m doing what I do is in order to spread that awareness. There are all kinds of ways to convey information like speech, close-up sign language, tactile sign language, writing, writing on palms, finger braille, and so on. This is something I learned through interpreter aids, but deaf-blind people can often think and act the same way as everyone else when we are just told, right now so-and-so is making this face, there’s this thing here and this is the situation, and so on.


Is there anything else you would like people to know about visual impairment?

Different visually impaired people have different environments and different access to information depending on where they live. Public transportation varies by area as well. For people who are only visually impaired, they have various ways of getting information orally. I can’t use them, but there are many people who are skilled at using smart phones and tablets by voice command. But there are also lots of people who don’t know about those methods. Though some people might find that information unnecessary even if they discover it. And about braille, a lot of people might think all visually impaired people can read braille, but braille users make up only 10% of visually impaired people. People also tend to assume hearing impaired people know sign language, but only 10-20% of hearing impaired people are proficient in sign language.


Really? That’s less than I thought.

Also, I’m sure everyone can recognize a visually impaired person with a cane, but I’d also like people to know what visually impaired people need, how to talk to them, and how to assist them. There are all kinds of specialized organizations, so I hope people will work with these organizations to spread information far and wide for improved understanding and awareness of the visually impaired, hearing impaired, and deaf-blind. It would be great if we could get the assistance we need when we need it.

For future development

Do you still feel you are putting all your energy in the reconstruction, Ms. Matsubara?

I don’t think I’m putting all my energy, but I think things will go backward if we stop. My goal was to establish in Onagawa a place for people with disabilities to be able to work, and help it run smoothly. From this particular point of view, I feel I could achieve something.

Considering the characteristics of the area, I believe we don’t need to expand the capacity of this workshop in Onagawa.

However, I am always considering expanding the business and tasks. They are related to work flows and economic aspects such as efficiency of the work, their improvements, about making better quality products, and the way how we could raise the payment.

Not doing things frantically but calculating for better outcome and trying with helps of people around us; that is what we could do. If things don’t work out, we find ways to promptly withdraw. We need to secure not to accumulate financial loss, that’s the bottom line I think.

We have been doing in this way by trying different methods, I suppose.


What is Kirara Onagawa trying to do in view of its future?

It is to hand our visions down to next generations. There are two key points I need to convey to staff members. Our role of course is to support persons with disabilities for their employment.

Firstly, we need to form sense of due responsibility and skills to check our own work. It’s a plain standard for private companies.

Second point is not to spare any effort to help improve trainees’ skills.

I will try to convey these to the staff, and I hope they do the same to future generations. Expanding the things what trainees can do is beneficial both for them and for the workshop.

We, staff have to show how to do first. With efforts of the trainees themselves and the perseverance of the staff, they will acquire the skills. It would be ideal that one day a trainee pushes staff’s hands away and says “I don’t need your help anymore.”