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Ripple Effects 4.5: The Connection Between Assistive Tech and Japanese Buddhist Epistemology

A group of men and women, including a man seated in a power wheelchair, put arms around shoulders in front of a Japanese shrine
A group of men and women, including a man seated in a power wheelchair, put arms around shoulders in front of a Japanese shrine


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Justin Harford: Ripple effects comes to you from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA

Mark Bookman: That understanding of well I’ve been studying thought for a while, and I want to study why I can’t get access to it. That was my pivotal transition where I had this thought about keeping track of access and what it looks like in spaces both domestic in the US and abroad.

Justin: For many travelers with disabilities, assistive technology is a good thing. Smart phones have a variety of applications that you can use to gather information about the environment around you while seeking out assistance when needed. A wheelchair or cane can be somebody’s key to getting around with or without help from others. For Mark Bookman, his cane and eventually his power chair were valuable for his student Fulbright fellowship in Japan. That experience also inspired him to pursue an assistive technology project of his own for his PhD program. I hope you enjoy this conversation that we had a short while ago in which he shared a little about how an investigation into the world of Buddhist epistemology unexpectedly became a springboard for what he does now at the University Of Pennsylvania.

Justin: Mark, thank you for joining us today.  one of the interesting things that we are hoping to learn about from you is about  the world of assistive technology and particularly a solution that you’ve been working on and how assistive technology can be used in travel. The started when we were talking about this  assistive technology that you were trying to  put together, and it sounds like you started it at your campus, and I wonder if you could start by telling us about this project.

Mark Bookman: Sure: I would be delighted to. So one of the impetus is for my project, which I’m calling the accessibility mapping project, was looking at the current state of access maps on college campuses, both in the US and abroad. Specifically if you look at an access map, you will see that is designed primarily for wheelchair users.  It might indicate where a wheelchair accessible entrance to the building is. It might even tell you how to get there. But most of the time simply knowing that there is a wheelchair accessible door doesn’t necessarily mean that that building will be fully accessible or of use to you so one of the things that I wanted to design was a way of showing not just the outside door but what the inside of the building looks like in terms of accessibility, so how do you navigate around say for example stairs inside of a building, or does the building have a gender-neutral bathroom or a lactation space, or does it have braille or tactile signage outside of the rooms. I wanted a way of being able to know what I was going to encounter when I got there so I could determine what parts of the building would be relatively more or less accessible to me, and I also wanted a way for talking about the Intersectionality of college campuses in terms of access and experience. For example, even if I go online to the college website I might have access to know that yes every room has braille signage, yes the building has a wheelchair accessible door to get into it, but I might not know that the Braille signage is above height for a wheelchair user. Having the individuals who navigate college campuses have the opportunity to gather their own data and create their own solutions was one of the main driving forces behind the project. How do you gather that information and how do you display it. So with that foundational question in mind, I started thinking about some of the technological tools that I have seen for gathering and displaying real-time pictures of spaces changing. And actually one of the first ones that came to my mind was the mobile app Ways. So not sure if you’re familiar with Ways

Justin: Yes I have heard about it but I’m not really familiar with the details though

Mark: Sure I’m happy to give a brief description. It is a GPS style application, where it will help you navigate from point A to point B, and along the way, if there is a traffic accident or construction on the road users of that application can hit a button on the phone and it will pop up on the screen for other users to see. So I took that concept and said well what would happen if we can apply the same logic to keeping track of where wheelchair accessible doors are, or where a lactation space might be

Justin: Or if an elevator is not functioning

Mark: Exactly. And how do we keep track of all that information in real time was really my priority.

Justin: And this  started when you were on a trip to Japan right? When you were studying in Japan right?

Mark: Exactly. So I did a Fulbright in Japan in 2014. While I was there, I had been to Japan a couple times before but actually at different stages of the progression of my condition that made me use a wheelchair. The first time I went to Japan was in 2008, and I was walking. I went again in 2012. I was using a cane most of the time. And I went again in 2014 when I was in a wheelchair full-time, and it was really the transitions of going back to the same spaces and seeing each time how there were places I used to go that I couldn’t get into anymore. I started thinking how would I know that. How would I know where I can and can’t go, it became a major concern when I was doing a Fulbright in 2014, because I was doing research on Buddhist thought and epistemology and I wanted to go to a ton of temples and shrines, and is anyone who researches buildings that are over a thousand years old might tell you, they are not the most accessible for wheelchair users.

Justin: No

Mark: Sometimes I would try to go around to get access to these temples that have been there for some time and I realized now this one has stairs or now this one has a statue front, and I couldn’t really get around. I wanted a way of knowing which ones would work for me and which ones wouldn’t. That understanding of well I’ve been studying thought for a while, and I want to study why I can’t get access to it. That was my pivotal transition where I had this thought about keeping track of access and what it looks like in spaces both domestic in the US and abroad.

Justin: It makes a lot of sense. When you are doing traveling especially when you are traveling living in the country for an extended period of time like when you did your Fulbright in Japan, you encounter a lot of new locations and places that   makes you realize how when you are in your community you pretty much go where it’s accessible and you just know where everything is. It’s  a different story when you are out in a different area, and you are not really sure of where you will find an accessible bathroom, braille or even not sure what accessibility can look like. And of course we all know that when you talk to planners, or hotels for example they may not always know exactly what you are looking for.

Mark: Exactly. There’s a few things to say there. The first of which is one of the foundational aspects of my work with this application and my research in general is figuring out how to get as many voices to the table so we can get as many perspectives on access as possible when describing spaces. So when you say that the hotel manager might not necessarily know every nook and cranny of their rooms, especially in light of an individual’s access needs, the way that I found that we could circumvent some of that is by giving as many perspectives as possible. So when I have been conceptualizing what I’m working with here in my research broadly speaking, I only start with the question how do you record as many different perspectives so that we can get access to the minute information that may be relevant to one person and less relevant to another, but certainly necessary to navigate spaces. So that is one thing. But the other thing, and I think this is really important about the study abroad experience especially with a disability, is that when you go and encounter those new environments and you do experience the differences positive and negative of access in places that are not the ones that you are familiar with, to become the holy transformative experience. As soon as you recognize that there are different standards of access or that there are different types of disabilities that are prioritized with accommodation and some spaces as opposed to others that lets you return home and completely reimagine the spaces that you worked in every day. You are not paying attention to details of access that maybe were so relevant to you but might be relevant to other people, and it allows for a broader conversation to happen about what access means and how to include as many people as possible.

Justin: Yes that makes a lot of sense. I mean this is  interesting too because it seems like… I don’t know that we talk so much about this on the podcast really but as far as like how assistive technology can give to people with certain kinds of disabilities access to opportunities for international exchange. I know that when I was traveling, assistive technology from me was a really broad definition it was a photocopy machine it was my slate and stylus which is an implement for writing braille by hand, it was my smart phone, which had a compass application on it and other things I used, and of course now the technology in is even more than when I was overseas 10 years ago, and I wonder if you can share any thoughts about how you have seen in other parts of your experience how A-T has impacted your experience in all of the extensive travel that you’ve been doing in Japan?

Mark: Sure. So I think I mentioned earlier that my condition has progressed over time and I’ve used multiple types of assistive devices whether it’s a wheelchair, a cane in terms of my physical mobility. And I’ve certainly seen each of those devices give me access to some spaces as opposed to others. One of the main through lines of my experience with respect to A-T has been looking for housing and finding housing. Because when you look for housing in a wheelchair for instance you have a very different experience than looking for housing with a cane. So you need to make sure that your doors are wide enough for instance to be able to accommodate a wheelchair, not only in the front door but in the bathroom and in any other rooms as well. And in a place like Japan, and Tokyo, where space in general is at a premium, you find that many rooms have narrow bathrooms, but the doorways have a step up front, and there are many barriers inside the home to encounter, before you even go outside and take the first steps towards the institution… Towards the space that you are going to be studying and researching at. So it starts there, and that’s where assistive technology has helped… Whether it is having a ramp to overcome the staircase to step up in my room or if it’s getting access to a specialized toilet that is at my wheelchair height, if it’s having access to digital communications technology… So if I can’t get into the classroom I have other ways of participating by Skyping in or participating in podcasts like this, so if I’m contacting someone across the country it might be difficult to get there in a wheelchair but I can do that in a technology that’s available to us now.

Justin: Yes opportunities for remote exchange

Mark: Yxactly. Technology has been a really key factor for me in shaping the experiences I’ve had, shaping how I think about them in shaping how act on them. It’s instrumental, and it’s really important to know what  technologies are available to you once you arrive or while you are doing your study abroad, and figuring out through that information in terms of what you can get access to, and the new pathways that will open. That’s  the really crucial step for me… Making sure that we have enough information to go forward. That’s the driving force behind the project that I’m working on in my research into this application also.

Justin: I appreciate those thoughts I think that’s really helpful and I appreciate the time that we had with you and I think that now as we are closing up… we heard that you had a Fulbright but you’ve been back to Japan multiple times I wonder if you could tell us about that. About your Fulbright opportunity for maybe some people who might not be fully familiar with the many different opportunities that are available through the Fulbright and tell us about the one that you found.

Mark: So my Fulbright… Had me go back to Tokyo… I was there for one year and when I was there I was affiliated with Tokyo University, and my affiliation allowed me to take classes at that time in ninth century Buddhist epistemology and classical texts. So the standard fare… Everyone does that.

Justin Right *laughs*light reading

Mark: Exactly and that was a very small part of what I did in Japan I should say. Most of my time was spent going around the country and meeting people

Justin: his is basically a research grant that you did

Mark: Yes it was a research grant that allowed me to continue my undergraduate thesis which was working on comparative philosophy in ancient Greece in Japan. While I thought that I was going there to study comparative philosophy, the experience that I had was quite different. I did spend some time in the classroom I met many friends. I stayed in contact with most of them.

Justin: You’re going to be going back visiting some of them in about a year maybe

Mark: Yes sooner than that actually. I’m heading to Japan for a year on a Japan foundations grant starting in August.

Justin: Wow

Mark: Yes currently in the prep work for that. Socially most of my time was spent outside the classroom either going to temples and working on some sites or just walking around town and meeting people. I found a very early on that because I counted all these barriers and because I had the mindset of an American who was used to a certain standard of accessibility and I was encountering a different standard that became a talking point that many people around me wanted to talk about. So as I was just going about my day and I can get into this restaurant or I was able to get into this study space that might have been impossible in the US, I took those moments as opportunities to talk with people around me and really started fostering connections where one day I was up in the mountains of this pristine temple meditating in the next day I’m giving a conference talk alongside her Imperial highness Princess Sakamoto of Japan, so it was a range of experiences, but one that really had profound impact on how I think to the point where I decided upon doing that Fulbright I was going to start my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania which is where I currently am.

Justin: Wow well congratulations. There you go folks a Fulbright is an amazing opportunity. It’s not just classes. It’s independent research. And we have plenty of information on the Fulbright on our website including past webinars and you can follow our newsletter if we have any future webinars and I just wanted to say Mark thank you so much for the time that you spent with us. We hope that you have a great next stay in Japan.

Mark: Thank you very much. It’s been wonderful being here. Really I just have to say one final thing which is that I’ve worked with MIUSA for quite a while. I reached out first when I was going to Japan in 2012 and the resources that you guys have a phenomenal for individuals with disabilities studying abroad, and so I would encourage everyone listening to seek out those resources and take the plunge, because really it’s a phenomenal experience.

Justin: Thanks Mark… We didn’t pay him to say that folks so email if you want to learn more about these opportunities. Thank you Mark. I appreciate it.

Mark: Of course.

Justin: And that concludes today’s episode of Ripple Effects: travelers with disabilities abroad. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and letting your friends know you’ve done so by sharing. If you feel really positively about us, you might also consider leaving us a review on iTunes. All of those things will help us get the word out to more people.

Ripple Effects: Travelers With Disabilities Abroad as brought to you by the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the US Department Of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in all kinds of international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA

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