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A Japanese GNH factory employs persons with intellectual disability

In early November, Bhutan hosted the 7th International Conference on GNH in Thimphu. While many of the international scholars and practitioners tried to propose their academic input to the prototype GNH certification tool, Mieko Nishimizu, former vice president of the World Bank, referred to a book, The Companies We Should Value Most in Japan, published in 2008 by Professor Koji Sakamoto, who studied more than 6,000 small and medium enterprises (SME) and selected five stories for his book. Although she didn’t mention the company’s name in her keynote, Nishimizu spoke about one SME which has been employing persons with intellectual disability. It’s Nihon Rikagaku Industries, Co. Ltd (NRI).

NRI, est. 1937, has been known as a company producing chalks to be used at schools. Located in Kawasaki, the outskirts of Tokyo, their main products are Dustless Chalk which writes well and clear on the blackboard, and kitpas, new material for drawing which writes clear on smooth surface like glass and windows and could be erased easily. Dustless Chalk is competitive enough and won the Sustainability Award for design for a better world at the NY NOW Exhibition in the United States in August 2016. Their market share of the school chalks is more than 50 percent in Japan. But NRI is also known as an organization where 62 of its total 83 employees, more than 70 percent, have various degrees of intellectual disability.

NRI applies the same pay scale no matter whether they are disabled or not. In fact, in their factory, some staff with intellectual disability can maintain a high level of concentration on the precision works for chalk or kitpas production for several hours, which is difficult for non-disabled staff to do for even 15-30 minutes. If we repeat simple task for hours, mistakes will occur once we lose concentration. But their factory workers have the ability to remain concentrated without difficulty. Some of them are appointed as honcho of the production lines.

Their ability to demonstrate the excellent skills has been enabled by the non-disabled supervisors who do not look at their staff in a uniform manner and customize their teaching delivery in accordance with the cognitive capacity of each and every staff. It has been further facilitated by the proprietor and managers who have made tireless efforts to customize their production lines and invent specialized test tools to inspect their products. These production process and inspection tools are easy to understand for the workers with intellectual disability. Since they hired the first disabled staff in 1960, the employers and employees have worked together to create an enabling environment for the disabled staff to fully perform their potential, which has also led to the competitive edge of the company.

Many of us might think that a peaceful society for persons with disabilities would be the one where the state extends enough and stable welfare services to them so that they don’t have to worry about food, clothing and shelter. But what we could learn from NRI is that’s not all: Even if they are disabled, if they still can work according to their capacity and get fair wages as compensation for their labor, they can be even more happier and their life will shine.

Self-reliance of the disabled-staff has helped reduce the burdens their family members have long borne. One mother reminisces about the days when her son was still a small child, “I used to believe that I should devote my whole life for him. I had been thinking that I could not die earlier than my son.” Now that he has started earning his own income, she has come to feel that it’s not the sole responsibility of the parents to care for their children. Brothers and sisters have also been relieved so that they could think about their own life.

Yasuhiro Ohyama, former CEO of NRI, advocates a society where everyone could work. It’s the society where everyone wins, no matter if he/she is aged, disabled, sick, or a single parent. If we could provide enough enabling environment, anyone could work, earn income and make his/her family happy. Anyone could help someone and feel happy. Ohyama says, “If a company hires one disabled person, the government could save its public expenditure for him/her and it could be used for other purposes. If the staff becomes skillful, he/she could contribute to the corporate performance and feel happiness to work. When he/she gets paid to live an independent life, it could reduce the burden of his/her parents and other family members and they are relieved, too. Caretakers of the welfare facilities for persons with disabilities could also reduce their workload.”

Ohyama emphasizes that NRI aims to build a “quintuple-win” society where the state, business, persons with disabilities, their family and caretakers could all win and be blessed with happiness. According to one calculation, NRI alone has saved public expenditure by more than JPY 1 billion for the last 50 years, by hiring just five staff with intellectual disability until their retirement age.

We can be useful once we get a job to do. We can feel joy of life when we are much appreciated and needed by others. Then we can even work much harder. Staying protected at home or welfare facility does not ensure a state of happiness. We have to be responsible to find the way to fully realize the latent potential of each employee regardless of the difference of abilities. If the employers can see their employees working happily, they themselves can be happier.

There have been series of discussions about inclusive education in Bhutan, but the empowerment of persons with disabilities is not only about education. We must also think about their livelihood. Life is still long after their school graduation.

Contributed by 

Koji YAMADA

Chief Representative, JICA Bhutan Office

This essay is based on a Japanese book titled Niji-Iro No Chalk (Rainbow-Colored Chalks) by Narumi Komatsu, published in May 2017.

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