First, I must explain that individuals with special needs in Japan usually stay in school until they graduate from high school. Some kids are successfully mainstreamed in the education system, others are placed in a special ed class, and others may have some hybrid of the two options. For instance, many students with disabilities are mainstreamed in elementary school, where the learning gap is smaller. This allows kids with special needs to be stimulated by "normal" social interactions and equally allows their typically developing peers to be exposed to a special needs child's unique perspective on life. As the academics become more challenging and it becomes more difficult to adapt the curriculum, a child with disabilities might enter a special ed class around junior high. Regardless of the situation, they graduate from high school and their parents ask, "Now what?"
Well, one option for these parents and their child, or rather adult, is something I will call a "workshop". These facilities are places for individuals with special needs to work during the day, a normal 9-5 working day. And as far as I can tell, there are a lot of these workshops all over the Tokyo Metropolitan area. Many of them are private organizations, often started by groups of parents as they saw the need to establish facilities where their children could go after graduating from high school.
And what kind of work do people do at these centers? The first workshop I went to, individuals were decorating dishes. Some paint, some cut out small paper shapes for other to glue on plates and bowls, some polish the dishes before they go into a kiln. So artistic! There was one room for the "professionals" who had been working there for a long time and another room for people in training, learning the techniques. These dishes are then sold at various shops and festivals in the city.
For my Mudder friends out there, other workshops are bit like clinic. Companies have various "projects" for the workers to do. These are mostly simple and repetitive tasks like putting plastic handles on paper bags for a famous cookie company or placing labels on postcards for Ralph Lauren mailings. It's all very interesting and I plan to visit more of these workshops in the coming weeks!
Every time I enter one of these workshops, everyone looks up from their work and turns their head toward me. They know I'm a foreigner and they are quite curious. I smile, wave, and greet them, "Konnichiwa!" In return, I get a whole room full smiles, waves, and konnichiwas! It is absolutely endearing and never fails to warm my heart. As I walk around and admire their work, they polish harder and glue shapes more diligently, eager to show me how well they are doing. A smile and simple thumbs-up from me and they beam with pride. I know, my life is rough isn't it? :)
(I do apologize, I haven't been allowed to take pictures in the facilities I have visited so far. Sorry!)
Other random tidbits from the past week:
- I burned through about $22 on transportation in two days. It's not hard to do.
- I'm still loving all the food here! Except for raw octopus and this weird fermented soy bean stuff Etsuko made me try.
- I feel really underdressed in my stereotypical travel clothes, lightweight and wrinkle free. People here dress so well, even in the heat!
- Heated toilet seats surprise me every time.
- You know how in LA you have to take five different freeways to get anywhere? Well in Japan, you have to take five different trains to get anywhere.
- Zumba PE class did not at all prepare me for the Japanese Bon Dance. I think the locals were amused to see my attempt at the very traditional dance at the small neighborhood festival.