Para-Athlete PowerLifter Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald and the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games

Eri Yamamoto and Yamawaki

Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald navigates the world in a wheelchair. No matter how fast this para-athlete swims, or how many goals she scores as an ice sledge hockey competitor, or how many kilograms she pushes into the air as a competitive powerlifter, when people see her, they see someone who needs help.

At an American Chamber of Commerce Japan event on June 2, 2017, Yamamoto-MacDonald of The Nippon Foundation told a fairly typical story, for her, of going to a store to buy rice. When she got to the cashier to pay for a 5kg bag of rice, the person working there took notice of her wheelchair and asked her, “are you able to carry that bag of rice?” She understood the person was not acting mean, but she was frustrated that as a power weightlifter, who lifts 50 kilograms in competition, is seen as so helpless that she can’t lift 5. “They are not seeing me as an athlete. They are seeing me as a disabled person.”

For joint speakers, Yamamoto-MacDonald, as well as Yasushi Yamawaki, also of the Nippon Foundation and president of the Japan Paralympic Committee, it is their mission to change the perceptions of people regarding individuals with impairments. “It’s not about disability, it’s about ability,” said Yamawaki. “We take the word ‘impossible’, and add an apostrophe between the ‘I’ and the ‘m’, because we like to say ‘I’m possible’. To us, nothing is impossible.”

Yamamoto-MacDonald, who has not had the use of her legs since birth, has been working in the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center with a goal of bringing social change to Japan. It’s important to change the tangibles, she said, designing infrastructure and venues to make it easier for people with impairments to navigate and take advantage of their surroundings. But it’s more important to deal with the intangibles. “Changing peoples’ minds is more important. Having them watch high performance para-athletes can change people’s perceptions towards people with disabilities.”

Nippon Foundation produces an Education Toolkit, called “I’m Possible”, which they distribute to schools throughout the country. So far they have handed out 23,000 toolkits nationwide. Nippon Foundation has organized visits by para-athletes to over 100 elementary, junior high and high schools last year. The plan is to visit 250 schools in 2017 and 1,000 by 2020.

The education is important because it is often the social environment that highlights the disability of an individual, as Yamamoto-MacDonald explained. If the work environment of a person with an impairment allows that person to move about and do the things he or she wants or needs to do, the so-called disability can be rendered unnoticeable. But if the physical environment caters to so-called able-bodied people only, and the surrounding individuals consciously or unconsciously behave or speak in a way that ignores or demeans those with impairments, then as Yamamoto-MacDonald observed, the social environment creates the disability.

She explained that at her workplace in the Nippon Foundation, everyone works to chip away at both the tangible and intangible barriers people with impairments face. However, while her workplace allows her to live a relatively normal life, she finds Japanese society less accommodating. “Japanese people are very polite. But in public, they are not. If I’m traveling by train, I need to use the elevators. But people who have the option of stairs and escalators push their way in front of me to get into the elevators.” She said that in contrast, while London still needed to make improvements to infrastructure, they had a better mindset, even back in 2012.

Yamamoto MacDonald and Roy

At the London Paralympics, I worked at the Japan House to build awareness for the Tokyo 2020 bid. To get to the venue I had to take public transpiration. I got off at a station where there were no elevators. The officers told me that I had to get off at the station before this one. But they made sure I got to the venue. The people’s mindset is very important, even without all of the infrastructure. I got to where I needed to go in London. Tokyo doesn’t have that mindset. People need to care a little more. It would be better to have more accessibility, but it is accessibility in the heart that is more important.

Yamamoto-MacDonald talked about how important it is for companies to expose themselves more to people with impairments, and to understand that engaging with a wider variety of people is an opportunity. In fact, she said that CSR, which stands for Corporate Social Responsibility, should really be re-labeled CSO, or Corporate Social Opportunity. It’s an opportunity for corporations and wider society to understand the power of diversity and inclusion. But it is also a way to expand opportunities for people like her. This is key for two reasons: to motivate those with impairments who feel different and isolated, as well as to unlock the potential abilities in the disabled.

I never got asked about my hobbies, or what sports I like. When I was 9, I was so shy. I couldn’t say “thank you”. Why is it only me who has to say “thank you” all the time, I thought. I couldn’t say “thank you” back because I felt I couldn’t help anyone. But when I began swimming, I gained confidence. I swam faster, faster than even able-bodied swimmers. That’s when I started saying “thank you”. As I grew more confident, I began to dream of being a Paralympian, going to the Paralympics. Since I began having that dream, it has become my identity.

An injury at 16 made it difficult for Yamamoto-MacDonald to continue her swimming career. She went to Canada and became proficient at ice sledge hockey, but she also understood this kind of hockey was not yet a Paralympics event. When she returned to Japan, she did not have a specialization that could focus her training for 2020, until she stumbled upon powerlifting.

Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan government sponsored a special event – a power-lifting exhibition. I saw big guys lifting hundreds of kilograms. My boss told me to give it a try. I grabbed 20kg and it was light! It was fun! I saw other women stop at 20kg but I was able to lift 40 kg. Since then I have been powerlifting.

She explained we rarely see powerlifting on television or live. There are very few events and opportunities, and the opportunities for people with impairments to see para-athletes is very low. “You have to meet the right people for the right chance to come around.” And that is something Yamawaki explained is key to driving societal change – the need to create greater exposure of para-athletes to society to show what is possible.

Yamawaki ended the talk with a video from the International Paralympics Committee. As you can see in the video below, there is a strong push to bring sports opportunities to youth with impairments, that motivating them earlier in their lives will lead them to greater choices and fuller lives.

“It’s not about what people can’t do, it’s what they can do,” he said.