"Creating a community where everyone can fulfill their dreams and lead a happy life regardless of disabilities." This is the mission of Mr. Tetsuya Hara, a speech therapist. He was the founder of a child development support center called WAKUWAKU STUDIO in Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture. Since doing that, he has been engaged in various initiatives to enhance support for children with developmental disabilities through collaboration with educational, medical, and social welfare professionals. This article introduces the interview between CRN Director Yoichi Sakakihara and Mr. Hara.
The ideal concept of an inclusive society, based on experiences in a welfare facility in Canada
Sakakihara: First, please tell us about your ideal concept of education and support for children with developmental disabilities.
Hara: After completing a course of social welfare studies at university, I went to Canada where I worked at a group home for persons with disabilities. I had valuable experiences there, which became the foundation for my ideal concept of an inclusive society. There were people there with various kinds of disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities and Down's syndrome.
They also joined in community activities, such as attending church for Sunday Mass with local people, and enjoyed their lives naturally. I was very surprised and moved by their way of living because the living environment of people with disabilities I had seen in Japan was not satisfactory at all. I originally started studying social welfare while at university because I wanted to be helpful to others, but through my experiences in Canada, my aspiration to help people in a meaningful way and support their happy life grew stronger. To do so, I realized that I needed to take practical action rather than relying on theoretical ideas.
Sakakihara: A society where everyone can enjoy a happy life regardless of their disabilities is truly inclusive. In Japan, because people with disabilities are living by receiving public welfare services, they tend to be restricted from fully enjoying themselves. In contrast, in the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees that people with disabilities are given opportunities to enjoy living the same way as non-disabled people. This act is based on the concept of seeking everyone's happiness, the same as you just told me. As you had valuable experiences in Canada at the beginning of your career, you naturally started seeking an inclusive society.
Building an inclusive society by respecting each person's hopes and aspirations
Hara: After returning to Japan, I worked at a facility for people with disabilities. However, at that time, I found difficulty in communicating with them. Therefore, I decided to take a training course for professionals specialized in hearing and speech at the National Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Disabilities to improve my communication skills. There, I attended a class taught by Dr. Sakakihara. Now, I understand why I could not do well at that time. I was trying to frame the reality into an idealism of "how things should be"; therefore, I failed to fulfill various hopes of people with disabilities in the facility.
Sakakihara: As you told me, fulfilling everyone's hopes might not be so easy in Japan, where supporting people with disabilities in trying to adjust to society is standard practice. In this majority-oriented culture of society, seeking the happiness of every people with disabilities is not a top priority. Now, we should rethink the concept of what is a genuinely inclusive society.
Mr. Hara, I heard that you took the first National License Examination for Speech-Language-Hearing Therapists and became a speech therapist.
Hara: Yes, I took the exam in 1999. After becoming a speech therapist, I worked as a rehabilitation professional for children with disabilities in Nagano Prefecture. In 2016, I founded the child development support center.
Sakakihara: What do you keep in mind when interacting with children with disabilities?
Hara: I try to build a trusting relationship with them so that they can feel safe and comfortable staying there. In the beginning, a lot of children feel very nervous. So I avoid starting counseling straight away; instead, I chat with their parents in front of them and show them how we have a normal conversation, to make them feel relaxed. After observing their reaction, I then plan the next step.Photo 1: The child development support center "WAKUWAKU STUDIO" provides education and support services for preschool children through collaboration with professionals, such as speech therapists, occupational therapists, childcare workers, kindergarten teachers, and music therapists. These professionals carefully observe, understand, and respond to the feelings and thoughts of children with various characteristics to support their development.
Facing difficulties in collaborating with teachers
Sakakihara: Mr. Hara, you focus on how to make the life of children happy in the community. Having said that, how do you collaborate with childcare facilities and schools?
Hara: To support the happiness of every child, I value the importance of collaboration between childcare, educational, medical, and social welfare professionals as one team within the community. The WAKUWAKU STUDIO is officially qualified to provide "visiting support for childcare facilities." Therefore, we visit kindergartens/daycare centers and elementary schools (where children with disabilities attend) to help them adapt to group life. However, we conduct this visiting activity after receiving requests from their parents rather than from schools. When receiving such requests, we often visit and talk with childcare workers, but it can sometimes be difficult to obtain understanding and cooperation from elementary schools and other facilities.
Of course, teachers wish to learn about developmental disabilities. However, most teachers are so busy that they cannot spare time for medical/welfare care in addition to education. Unfortunately, when teaching children who have various developmental characteristics, their methodologies and experimental rules do not work the same way when teaching children without disabilities. This may lead to disruption in the classroom. I am sure school teachers are highly aware of addressing these issues. Therefore, I want to build a collaborative relationship with them so they can consult us without hesitation and utilize our professional skills more often. My objective is to reinforce collaboration with teachers.
Sakakihara: School teachers in Japan have excellent skills; therefore, they probably want to avoid asking others for help.
Hara: It is not my intention to stop our support due to difficulties cooperating with school teachers, as that would tend to make children and parents unhappy. All children who are receiving education and support at the WAKUWAKU STUDIO will eventually enter elementary school, so I am worried whether these children can successfully adapt to school life. I'm always thinking about constructive and practical ways to improve collaboration with teachers.
School teachers have their own motivation to become good educationists, wishing to support children's development as strongly as we do. Nevertheless, in the current teacher training programs, it is difficult to learn methodologies to support children with various developmental characteristics. As a result, many of them probably feel unsure and need help with what to do.Photo 2: Currently, about 400 kinds of play activities are provided for children, including toys, exercises, games, and picture cards, and more activities will be added in the future. These activities, education, and support focusing on children's interests are implemented to nurture their personalities and communication skills.
Expanding grassroots efforts will help the realization of an inclusive society
Sakakihara: Even though teachers are sensitive to understanding the thoughts and feelings of each child, the current educational system may prevent them from doing so.
Hara: I agree. The way of interacting with children will change significantly when transitioning from preschool to elementary school. Children are often told that "You are already in elementary school, big enough to do better." Therefore, we ask parents to write down their children's early developmental history, including their strengths and weaknesses, preferred play activities, and how to manage when they panic. We then revise what the parents wrote by modifying and adding some information, creating a "Support Book" by compiling information on children who go to the same elementary school and submit it to that elementary school. For parents, this process is beneficial because, while writing about children's history, they feel happy with their growth by recalling their babyhood and recognizing things they did not notice. Some parents put in children's photos from when they were babies as a way to convey the message to school teachers, "We have brought this child up with so much care, so please take good care of our beloved children in elementary school too."
Sakakihara: It is a good idea to visualize support methods personalized for each child, such as "If you notice this state of the child, you should manage the situation in this way or in that way." This information is of significant help to school teachers when interacting with children with developmental disabilities.
Hara: I hope so. It is essential to help teachers understand the movement of children with developmental disabilities and witness improvements through appropriate support. Once, when I visited a special-needs school that qualified under the "visiting support scheme for daycare centers," a school teacher consulted me. She looked troubled and exhausted, saying, "The child stubbornly rejects learning the Japanese syllabary." I observed the child and advised her on how to support the child. Three months later, I revisited the school. The teacher happily told me that the child had started learning the Japanese syllabary. She said, "I enjoy teaching the child very much. What should I do next?" I was also encouraged by her response in return.
Sakakihara: I had a similar experience at a Japanese school in Germany. The headmaster struggled to provide education and support for a child with autism at that time. I advised him to assign a support staff teacher. Later, the headmaster told me, "The child is now enjoying school life very happily. Thank you very much for your advice!" After that, I heard that the headmaster had employed a full-time teacher with a license to teach children with special needs.
Hara: I wish to share such experiences with more teachers, so I approached the Suwa-City Board of Education. As a result, I will teach two summer sessions for teacher training starting in 2023. In these sessions, I will explain the importance of building a trusting relationship with children and parents and providing support through collaboration with educational, medical, and welfare professionals, and explore practical methods to implement this mission together with the students.
Sakakihara: Your initiative sounds really good. Expanding down-to-earth actions within the community is particularly important to realize an inclusive society. While consulting the government to implement top-down policies is necessary, grassroots efforts spreading like a brush fire support such policies to change society.
Offering a place where people with various characteristics can work by fully exercising their strengths
Sakakihara: Finally, please tell us your future plans.
Hara: The ultimate concern for the parents of children with disabilities may be "How the child can live independently when s/he grows up." We are now working on the WAKUWAKU FOODS PROJECT to solve this issue. This project aims to offer a place to work for people with various characteristics. More precisely, this project processes vegetables and fruits produced in Shinshu (Nagano Prefecture) into higher value-added products. In the future, we aim to sell these products overseas, such as in Europe, Asia, and Oceania.
Before launching this project, I used to run two restaurants concurrently with my work as a speech therapist for eleven years. At that time, I already had an idea to create a place to work for children with disabilities when they grow up. Now, I am working on this food project taking advantage of my network built up over the years.
The most important thing I focus on in this food project is to leverage each person's strength according to their characteristics. Children with various characteristics may not be good at certain things, but at the same time, they often demonstrate remarkable strengths in certain areas, such as sincerity, concentration, and meticulousness. We believe they can relate their strength in producing higher value-added products in this project. When they grow up, if they support our project, we will welcome them to collaborate together.Photo 3: The WAKUWAKU FOODS PROJECT is expanding the network of people to share the feeling of WAKUWAKU (excitement). The project aims to offer a place where everyone can feel happy to work and produce safe and delicious processed products.
Sakakihara: Mr. Hara, thank you for sharing your story with us. Your initiative to give a dream to children with developmental disabilities and offer a place to work together is truly admirable. You are a true educationist.
Hara: We will advance this project steadily as we already have many supporters. According to Professor Takashi Maeno who specializes in happiness studies at Keio University (who wrote a commentary for my book "How to Make Families and Children with Developmental Disorders Happy: Better Communications Help Children's Development" published by Gakuensha), a happy person means "an individual who positively challenges themselves, stays true to themselves, and feels excited while engaging with a diverse group of companions." I strongly agree with his theory. I hope this project is promoted by a lot of people who are thrilled and excited by it and that it successfully offers a place where everyone, people with and without disabilities, wishes to work.
Sakakihara: Your idea is genuinely inclusive as it makes people with disabilities feel "WAKUWAKU" (excited) with the project. I hope for the success of your project and support you as much as possible. Thank you very much for joining us today.
Mr. Hara is a speech therapist and social welfare counselor, serving as a representative director of WAKUWAKU PROJECT JAPAN. He was born in 1966 in Chiba Prefecture and graduated from the Department of Social Work, Faculty of Sociology & Social Work, Meiji Gakuin University. He also completed a training course for professionals specialized in hearing and speech at the National Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Disabilities.
He has been working at facilities for persons with disabilities in Tokyo, Nagano, and Canada. In 2015, he established a general incorporated association, WAKUWAKU PROJECT JAPAN in Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture, with the mission of “Make families of children with developmental disabilities happy.” The project operates the “WAKUWAKU STUDIO” that supports children with developmental disabilities, providing education and support for young children. It has also provided counseling services for more than 5,000 families. His main publications include “Complete Guide for Education and Support for Children with Developmental Disabilities” (Kodansha) and “How to Make Families and Children with Developmental Disorders Happy: Better Communications Help Children’s Development” (Gakuensha).
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.
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