Candidate with ALS elected to Japan's Upper House

When Yasuhiko Funago takes his seat in Japan's Upper House this week, he'll be making history. The 61-year-old vice president of nursing-care company suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and is paralyzed from the neck down. He's one of two new lawmakers with severe disabilities and he'll be changing the look of the Diet in more ways than one.

As Funago's supporters celebrated his win, one read out his victory statement for him. It said he was thrilled to see such a desperate wish become a reality, and though he may look weak, he believes he has more courage than most people.

Funago was diagnosed with ALS in his 40s. Since then he has lost the ability to speak or control most of his movements.

To get around, he needs a wheelchair equipped with an artificial respirator and to have a nurse or helper attending him. His food has to be pureed and fed directly into his stomach through a tube.

During the election campaign, he wrote his speeches using a device he operates with his teeth. Other people would then read them out for him. It was a time-consuming process, but he took to the streets about twice a week with a fresh speech laying out his campaign pledges, including the reform of education for people with disabilities.

It took hours for Funago to complete his speech lasted for about ten minutes.

Funago is the first ALS patient in this country to have been elected as a Diet member. Japan's lawmakers usually need to attend plenary sessions and a number of committee meetings. Most of them have to move from one meeting room to another within minutes and go up and down stairs.

This isn't the first time the Diet has had to adapt to a member who needed support. Wheelchair-bound Eita Yashiro won an election in 1977 and served for 28 years, first in the Upper House, then in the Lower House.

At the time, lawmakers were required to stand to show their approval when voting on a bill. Yashiro couldn't, so he raised his hand instead.

The Diet building underwent renovations to accommodate him, with wheelchair ramps being installed and lower-than-usual tables so he could give speeches while seated. A new restroom with wheelchair access was built near the entrance of the plenary session hall.

Former diet member Eita Yashiro has been in a wheelchair since his mid-thirties.

After the latest election, the upper house steering committee decided to make space for lawmakers with severe disabilities near the entrance of the main hall. They agreed to allow caregivers to vote in plenary sessions on a lawmaker's behalf. And the new members will be allowed to bring in personal computers that help them communicate.

Work has begun on Japan's Upper House to improve accessibility for two new lawmakers who rely on motorized wheelchairs.
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Japan hasn't always been at the forefront when it comes to rights for disabled people. Last year, 28 government ministries and agencies were found to have falsely identified employees as disabled to meet official quotas. But when Funago debuts as a lawmaker on August 1st, it will mark a leap forward in the representation of people with disabilities, a demographic that the Cabinet Office estimates is 7.6% of the population.