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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 22:04 GMT 23:04 UK
Making disabled workers welcome
By Duncan Bartlett
BBC World Service business reporter in Kyoto, Japan

Omron Taiyo
Omron Taiyo insists it is a business, not a charity

The Japanese are ingenious in using the latest technology to enhance almost every aspect of their lives.

Now they are developing new machines and working practices to create productive jobs for disabled people.

The Omron Taiyo factory in Kyoto - which makes electronic sensors for doors and ticket barriers - is a case in point. What is unusual about this plant is that 80% of its staff are disabled - in fact most of them have severe disabilities.

But thanks to the use of the latest machines, the staff can overcome their physical limitations and produce high quality products.

Gaining independence

For workers such as Baba Akio, who suffers from cerebral palsy, this is a great opportunity.

"I found it very hard to find a job after I finished my education, so I'm very grateful to be able to work here," he tells the BBC's World Business Report.

"This job has given me my independence. I appreciate that a lot."

This factory employs 82 people, who earn on average around $29,000 per year.

That is higher than the minimum wage in Japan and very much on a par with the money earned by non-disabled people in similar jobs.

No charity

The factory receives some support from the government but it is designed as a profit-making business.
Workers at Omron Taiyo
Many firms have trouble mixing disabled and non-disabled staff

The parent company, Omron, is a giant electronics firm headquartered in Kyoto.

According to Omron Taiyo's president, Mitsuru Kitamura, the decision to employ disabled workers is all about hard-headed commercialism.

"Omron's philosophy is not to be a charity but to contribute to society through the workplace," he says.

"We support our staff. If a person can't use his right arm we will provide the equipment he needs to work. Every individual here contributes to making a profit for the company."

Still at a disadvantage

Omron is not the only large Japanese corporation with a special division for disabled people.

Sony and Honda have similar operations, for example.

In Japan, both private companies and government organisations are supposed to have a disabled workforce of about 2%, although many fail to reach that target.

So the unemployment rate among disabled people remains higher than that theorectically required by law.

Different strokes

And not everyone is certain that Omron's model is the right one.

Yasuko Hatano, a wheelchair user who works at the plant, sometimes regrets that segregation is necessary.

"Of course I think it's good to have factories like this one for disabled people," she says. "But if possible I wish that disabled people and non-disabled people could work together."

Mariko Fujiwara, who researches social and business trends in Japan for the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, says a genuinely mixed workplace is tricky to achieve.

"Even companies which are quite advanced in using physically disabled people as their labour force are unable to make all their facilities and all their space accessible for anyone to use regardless of disabilities," she says.

"Many companies still fall behind."

Catching up

The government hopes to change that, especially by encouraging the use of new hi-tech equipment which disabled people can use. It is also committed to making public buildings, trains and buses accessible to people with disabilities, something of a priority in a country where the population is ageing rapidly.

And as more Japanese grow older and retire, the number of people working to support them will need to increase. Another good reason for Japan to do all it can to bring the disabled into profitable and rewarding jobs.

The BBC's Duncan Bartlett
Reports from the Omron Taiyo factory in Kyoto

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