Realizing a diverse and inclusive society, with “disability-friendly community development”
“Special Learning” e-learning training aimed at promoting education in disabled care welfare
There are a total of 9,647,000 disabled people in Japan, and that number is rising1. Currently, there are about 140,000 support facilities nationwide that support disabled people, with about 1,000,000 staff working in the field.
In such circumstances, one major societal problem is the abuse of disabled people. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) conducts an annual survey of abuse of disabled people. That number has been steadily increasing, and in the survey2 published in FY2020, there were 6,556 consultations and reports about abuse by caregivers including parents and family members, of which 1,768 cases were determined to be abuse. Likewise, there were 2,865 consultations or reports made of abuse committed by staff at welfare facilities for disabled people, of which 632 cases were deemed to be abuse, all of which are record high numbers.
“This number is just the tip of the iceberg, with the reality being that there are many more cases of abuse,” says Shunsuke Shimura, the CEO of Lean on Me Inc., which does business based on the philosophy of “disability-friendly community development”. Based on his own experience working at a support facility for intellectually disabled people, he points out that lack of knowledge is a major factor in abuse happening.
“Say for example that there is a disabled person in a wheelchair. Even if you don’t have expert knowledge, you will be able to sense to some degree what the person is having trouble with and how you can help them. However, in many cases it is hard to understand what problems are faced by people with intellectual disabilities or mental disabilities, and it is difficult to make decisions without a certain degree of knowledge about how to deal with such problems. At disabled care welfare service businesses, the number of professionally certified care workers, service managers, and the like are each determined, but many people who work in the field are uncertified part-time staff. Despite lacking knowledge, they have little time for education or training in the field, because care must be provided 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, all of which contribute to the severe abuse problem.”
In order to solve such problems in disabled care welfare, Shimura launched the online training service “Special Learning” for supporters of disabled people. Unlike conventional group training and in-person classes, which are restricted in terms of place and time, online training can be done anytime, anywhere so long as the student has a smartphone, tablet device, or PC. What is more, the learning materials consist of videos that last about 3 minutes each. There is no need to read difficult materials, and it is possible to learn by grasping the main points which anyone can understand.
Six years have passed since he launched the service in 2016. It has been introduced in more than 1,400 facilities nationwide, including local governments, welfare facilities, and has over 37,000 users, with the scale continuing to grow even now.
A new business structure conceived from experience in the field of supporting intellectually disabled people
When Shimura was a university student, he hoped to become a professional tennis player, but he reconsidered his future in his third year of university. He was studying for certification as a health and physical education teacher, but was living with his mother and his younger brother who has Down syndrome. This led him to think, “I want to have a comfortable adult life, so that I can also help my family economically when they are in trouble.” That is when he had the idea to become an entrepreneur.
“However, I did not know what kind of business I wanted to run, so I started working at a restaurant in order to learn about management. I decided to start a business in the tech industry, because it can be started with a relatively small amount of capital, and I started studying computers,” says Shimura. At the same time, he started a part-time job to support disabled people, in order to support his mother, who was working at a support facility for intellectually disabled people. The experience of working at two different establishments, a restaurant and a disabled person support facility, was a major deciding factor in the direction of Shimura’s entrepreneurship.
“The restaurant where I worked is a major nationwide chain with reliable manuals for all tasks, and a system in place so that anyone can provide uniform service. On the other hand, there were practically no manuals at the disabled support facility, so when I first started working part-time, I was at a complete loss as to what I should do. Furthermore, the facility had many people with severe intellectual disabilities, and with my lack of knowledge and experience, it was difficult to communicate with users of the facility. My senior coworkers seemed too busy for me to even ask them questions. My business idea started with the shock I felt at the huge gap between these two workplaces.”
Shimura’s idea was to create a training system that enables anyone who works in the field of disabled care welfare to learn without difficulty. With this in mind, he came up with the business concept of an “e-learning training service dedicated to welfare for disabled people”. In 2014, Shimura established Lean on Me Inc., and while working on building a restaurant website, he accumulated experience in the field at a support facility for disabled people, gaining deeper knowledge as he made preparations.
In order to start producing educational content full-scale, in 2015 he traveled to the US, a highly advanced country in the field of disabled care welfare, and practiced giving support at a support facility for disabled people in Oregon for one month. After returning to Japan, he started program development, and flew around the country conveying his thoughts to experts in the industry of disabled care welfare, in order to build a professional network.
The direction Japanese society should take, as seen in the United States, a world leader in providing welfare
“By studying in the US, I was able to see various issues posed to welfare in Japan. The biggest difference is that the US has a highly developed ‘inclusive society’, in which all people accept each other’s diversity and live together normally in a single society regardless of whether or not they have disabilities.”
“I accompanied an intellectually disabled person to a sports facility that he always uses, as part of support for his participation in society. However, there were times when he forgot the passcode he needed in order to enter the building, and became unable to enter. In Japan, the staff would probably let him in anyways without a second thought, but the American staff didn’t just let him in. Rather, they patiently guided him towards remembering the passcode by giving him hints about the number. When I saw these people who were not disabled care professionals naturally work with disabled people, it made me think “This is what it means to coexist naturally in society.” In order to avoid helping disabled people in a way that deprives them of chances to learn, we must give the truly necessary support while thinking and acting together… I had the painful realization that each individual must approach each other with that awareness in order to build an inclusive society where everyone can live comfortably.”
Shimura also believes that in America, since support for disabled people become a licensed profession, and the important sense of duty and heavy responsibility have brought higher status, they have been able to improve the quality of disabled care welfare.
After returning to Japan, Shimura customized the information and knowhow he brought with him from America to fit the laws and systems in Japan, and finished making his e-learning training program “Special Learning” in 2016. That marked the full-scale start of his business.
Using “inclusion technology”, as a tool to make the inclusive society of the future
While e-learning has certainly permeated the culture of typical companies, it is hardly known in the disabled care welfare industry, and is often refused because they think it will not work for them. However, Shimura said “At the time e-learning mostly consisted of playing long, drawn-out lectures in video format, reading PDF documents, and answering tests, so it was hard to change the image that e-learning is really boring.”
In order to dispel this image, Shimura produced “Special Learning” materials mostly in the form of videos lasting 3 minutes each. With cooperation from well-known teachers in the disabled care welfare industry in Japan, he was able to convey systems and mechanisms in an easily understood way and make service contents more reliable.
In order to change people’s awareness and the way society functions, Shimura also launched “Friend Company”, a website for spreading information about the characteristics of intellectual disabilities, and started conducting educational activities. The company also actively participated in business contests to promote their business and initiatives, and raise awareness of them.
Those efforts gradually led to achieving results, and in 2020 the business really got into gear. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became impossible to do conventional in-person and group training, and attention turned to e-learning training that can be done remotely, and suddenly more organizations began to introduce “Special Learning”.
They received strong reactions from people who actually used the service, reflecting their high degree of satisfaction with the contents. Feedback mentioned that the content was very helpful because it enabled them to learn in their spare time, the focused nature of the content makes it easy to remember, and that they can freely choose what content to study according to their career and skills. In a survey of users, 82% of staff working the field replied saying “I started to think of whether or not my support the disabled was actually abuse,” showing effectiveness at preventing abuse.
Through his business, Shimura had established the new concept of “IncluTech (coined from Inclusion and Technology)”. With the aim of using technology as a tool to realize inclusion of diversity, his company is boldly attempting to solve problems facing society.
Aiming for a society in which everyone accepts each other and lives together naturally
Many facilities and users across Japan are already using “Special Learning,” but Shimura says “This is far from being enough.”
“Our biggest issue right now is to realize wider adoption of our services with a sense of urgency, so that we can reduce tragic instances of abuse as soon as possible in the field of nursing care. Therefore, we will keep producing educational content that is more practical and suitable for the field, and we will also thoroughly analyze and clarify elements that lead to signing contracts, and come up with even more effective sales promotion strategies.”
For Shimura, the success of a business is just one part of a bigger process. What lies ahead of him is to create an environment in which it is normal for everyone to know about the characteristics of disabilities. This means normalizing a society in which people both with and without disabilities can live in harmony, in other words “creating an inclusive society.”
“People with disabilities in Japan face a great number of challenges and problems regarding welfare, and there are many obstacles that must be overcome. To that end, it is important that we first grow our business and expand our organization. I really want to make a better society.”
Shimura speaks with vigor and a big smile, drawing a clear vision that will continue into a better future.