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JapanFriday, April 22

Women of Vision: Crossing Barriers

Getting around Japan's crowded cities can be a struggle for anyone, especially for people in wheelchairs. The task has become a bit more manageable, though, thanks to one woman's work.

Yuriko Oda, who uses a wheelchair herself, started an award-winning website, 'Wheelchair Walker' that came from her own experience getting around. She sometimes finds it difficult to reach destinations, particularly if the route involves navigating kerbs.

Oda grew up without serious health problems, but around the time she hit 20, her legs started feeling unusual. Two years later, she was diagnosed with distal myopathy, a rare disease that involves muscle weakness.

Oda's husband and son help her meet daily challenges. Over time, mobility and regular activities are likely to become even more difficult. She had to come to terms with a wheelchair a decade ago and eventually, she may have to stay in bed.

"I wish I could stop the increase in the number of things I can't do. But somehow, the less able I am to do something, the more I believe I can," she says of her approach to her illness.

Oda started the 'Wheelchair Walker' website in 2014 because trips to unknown places required careful planning, and courage. She thought she could help others by posting videos of what she had found. But one woman can only do so much.

"I can't get to every part of Japan myself," she explains. "Even if I visit some place far from where I live, like Okinawa, I can't easily collect information about barrier-free conditions. I'm sure wheelchair users in those places know a lot, though."

She came up with the idea of an app that would allow people in wheelchairs to help each other. With the help of collaborators, Oda proposed the project to a program at Google that targets social problems. It received the grand prize, along with financial support.

The test version launched in March with more than 50 participants. Those who took part started out from Tokyo station to various destinations, posting pictures of helpful facilities like elevators and accessible bathrooms, and obstacles such as stair steps.

The fieldwork demonstrated how difficult it is for wheelchair users to navigate unfamiliar places. The team also realized that the process of taking pictures and posting information was more demanding than expected.

"By myself, I can't do all that much. But by working together, our project can accomplish a great deal," says Oda. Her app will have its official release next year. In the meantime, her disease operates on its own schedule, and her physical ability is likely to diminish. But she has already made life better for herself and many others.