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Parasports Messengers, Out to Bring Change: Speech Training & Lectures Received with Great Acclaim

――“My life has been more interesting since I’ve been in a wheelchair.” “Being involved in the Paralympics has made my life so much more brilliant.”
These are para-athletes that have gone through so much, who have managed to inspire themselves and others, and who have even helped to create a better environment for parasports in general. Their words, as always, have the power to affect change in the hearts of those who listen to them.

With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics approaching, demand for para-athlete speakers is rising—and the speakers’ skills have not been able to keep up. So in July 2017, The Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center (Parasapo) began efforts to try to solve this issue. They established a speech training program specific to parasports, aimed not only at para-athletes, but to former athletes and coaches as well, and put it to full operation in October of the same year.

And that’s not all. Those who complete this program become certified “Parasport Messengers”, and are deployed as “ambassadors” to places throughout the country, in order to help realize a more inclusive society through parasports. The office in charge of these speakers was opened in May. Since then, they have received much more attention than they originally expected, with requests from companies, schools, and local governments, and over the course of about seven months, 9,500 people have attended these events.

Speech-Giving, a Work in Progress: Archer Ueyama Makes a Decision

Tomohiro Ueyama, who does archery and is based in Osaka, spoke passionately about the need to increase visibility for parasports.
“It would be awful if the venues at the Tokyo Paralympics were full of empty seats. Athletes need to do their part to promote their own sports. One way to do this, and a way that really allows you to communicate with people, is to go out and do speeches. I’ve said publicly that the archery venue during my matches will be completely full. But I think there have to be more athletes that think like that if we want the Paralympics as a whole to have a certain level of hype and excitement.”

Ueyama himself had enjoyed an uptick in interview and lecture requests since he had competed in his first Paralympics in Rio in 2016. With his cheerful energy and optimism, it wasn’t difficult for him to capture the hearts of elementary and middle schoolers, but adults were a different story. When he went to speak at companies, he was shocked to spot people falling asleep during his speech. He realized he needed the skills to convey his message in a way that was easy to understand for the listener.

Tomohiro Ueyama said that after completing the program, he wants to devote more to his speeches, and change the image society has of people with impairment

In addition to Ueyama, there are currently 51 people participating in this program. The program is structured specifically for para-athletes, and is comprised not only of themes related to the experiences of these para-athletes, but also of the deeper message of Parasapo, aimed towards meeting various needs and realizing an inclusive society. The actual training, in which participants discuss the content of their speeches, prepare documentation, and learn the basics of giving a presentation, consists of 6-8 sessions, approximately 90 minutes long, adjusted to the skills and requests of each individual participant. The instructors are professionals from consulting companies, with a wealth of experience giving presentations and training human resources.

Ueyama, who had just completed one of his training sessions, said, “Talking to some of the instructors, I’ll realize that even the things I take for granted, that I think are obvious, can be used as talking points in my stories.” He seemed very happy with the program, saying, “I just can’t wait to go give some speeches after I finish this program.”

The Training of Parasports Messengers and The Potential in Their Deployment

Companies also contributed pro bono to the development of the program. One of the developers was Joichi Ebihara, who himself trained three Paralympians in the program, and who shares in this passion for parasports and inclusion.

Joichi Ebihara spoke about how his company became involved in the project, and his thoughts on the program (Accenture Japan Ltd)

Ebihara had always had an interest in the theme of inclusion, in the sense of creating and driving opportunity, etc., for women. It was when he began researching the operation of parasports organizations, encountered parasports, and met with people with impairment, however, that he realized there was nobody better suited to speak up, to use their voices, than para-athletes—particularly towards the realization of an inclusive society. After much discussion, the company decided to become involved with the program.

“One thing that surprised me when I spoke to the people at Parasapo was when they said that in Japan, you don’t really see people with impairment out in public—almost to the point where you’d think there weren’t any of them in the country. Then I thought about my own experiences, and I recalled knowing people in wheelchairs, but everyone thinking of them as someone that needed assistance, someone that needed extra consideration. There wasn’t the kind of relationship where we could just be open and greet each other normally. They made me realize that that was something that needed to change. It also made me think it would be effective in terms of realizing an inclusive society, for these para-athletes, with all their influence, to go out and tell society that people with impairment aren’t ‘special’ and should be treated just like anyone else.”

Ebihara also emphasized how the messages the para-athletes and coaches were sending out were all different, and that there was no set “answer” towards this goal.

One of the program’s goals is to affect change on the mindsets and behaviors of others through lectures and other efforts. Daichi Kanai, Project Leader at the Project Promotion Department in Parasapo, has felt the progress towards this goal firsthand.
“I was in charge of the training for Atsuko Maruo, who competed in triathlon at the Rio Paralympics, and her final lecture for the program was for a company that’s very deeply involved in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. She told them about her own experiences, telling them how the venues in Rio had been very nicely decorated, but that because she had poor eyesight, she hadn’t been able to see the decorations that well. Immediately people sprung into action, and I’ve heard someone actually in charge of planning the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics is going to talk to people and figure something out. As a trainer in the program, it was amazing to hear that a lecture by a Parasports Messenger had led to direct action by the people actually involved in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.”

Parasports Messengers may soon play an integral role in bringing change to Japanese society. Parasapo’s goal is to train 100 speakers towards Tokyo 2020, including even higher-level speakers (A class and S Class) with even more influence.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by Masashi Yamada

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