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Giving back to welfare: A young hero at a support facility for people with disabilities

In Joyo City, Kyoto, after a 15-minute walk from JR Nagaike Station through a residential area and an ironworks and parts factory, I reached the facility. There, entering through a large gate, I saw buildings with exposed concrete and glass front, designed by a well-known architect, dotting the 3-hectare open space. The premises also have a courtyard surrounded by a walkway, where you can enjoy cherry blossoms in spring. It is just like a park.

This is the property of social welfare corporation Minami Yamashiro Gakuen. The modern buildings are support facilities and sheltered workshops for people with disabilities. Each facility’s name is denoted by one Chinese character, such as “円 (Madoka, meaning circle),” “和 (Nagomi, meaning peace),” and “魁 (Sakigake, meaning pioneer).” Minami Yamashiro Gakuen, which was founded in 1965 as a facility for people with intellectual disabilities, has expanded its services to also tend to older people and children. It has around 750 employees and operates 38 branches in Kyoto and Osaka prefectures.

Opened in 1974: A support facility for people with disabilities to enable “life with work”

As we were strolling, service users (people with disabilities) came out of a dining room, having just finished their lunch. I was told they were going to work in the afternoon—laundry and indoor jobs. When I greeted them with a “Hello,” they cheerfully welcomed me. “They get really excited when they meet someone new,” says Mr. Soya Sato (age 33), the assistant facility director at Sakigake.

Sakigake opened in 1974 as a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities. With the goal of “working and living in a community,” it currently has 60 residents, right from teenagers to those in their 70s, majority of whom have intellectual disabilities. These residents receive support with respect to their meals, bathing, housework, and other tasks. During the day, they work under the type B support for continuous employment, a loose work style without an employment contract. About 20 additional people commute from their own residences and group homes. Some users work under the type A support for continuous employment, which includes an employment contract with Minami Yamashiro Gakuen, with the aim of finding work in regular companies. According to Mr. Sato, two have already found employment this year.

In addition to a dining room and shower rooms, the facility has 14 single rooms and 23 double rooms. The double room for men that I visited was about 13 m2 with a large window, beds, dressers, a TV, etc. It also had games and DVDs, organized neatly, looking like a room for young men in general. While there are some rules on daily living, regarding meals and bathing, “We try to be flexible,” says Mr. Sato. “If they were at home, they would eat, take a bath, and go to bed whenever they liked. I want them to feel that kind of happiness in everyday life here.”

Focusing on what they like to do and what they are good at

During the day, they generally work from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm five days a week within or outside Minami Yamashiro Gakuen, engaging in any of the five types of jobs available: laundry, indoor jobs, farm work, weeding, and laundry at a facility for older people operated by another corporation. At the beginning, users try all five, and then, choose what they like to do. They are paid once a month according to their work hours. When I visited the laundry near Sakigake, the air was filled with the pleasant smell of detergent.

The laundry had seven large industrial washers and dryers, where eight users were busy folding clothes and towels. I was told that they do the laundry of around 200 people every day, collected from facilities of Minami Yamashiro Gakuen, and deliver the items back to these facilities. Beside these users, a male staff member was supervising their work. “If they are good at working with machines, they operate washers and dryers. If they can read, they sort the laundry while checking the name on each item. So, each user does what he/she is good at.” That would explain why they all looked cheerful and energetic.

At a workshop for indoor jobs in a different building, users were assembling gift boxes for sweets, putting flyers in boxes, and working on different tasks commissioned by companies and municipalities. I could see the staff’s attention to detail, such as their handwritten notes to remind users of tricky processes. I asked a man in his 50s, who was sorting flyers skillfully, “How is your work?” He smiled and said, “I enjoy it.” I was told he was highly experienced, having worked there for over 30 years.

Meanwhile, two women were keenly observing these users working: they were third-year college students studying welfare. Minami Yamashiro Gakuen actively accepts such interns to provide people with first-hand experience of welfare. “The place is lively and filled with smiles. The image of a support facility for people with disabilities has changed,” they said. One of the students told me that she would like to work at a welfare facility in the future.

Growing up in a children’s home, choosing a career in welfare

While surveying work on the premises, Mr. Sato would ask users things like, “Have you had lunch?” in the Kyoto dialect. After three years as a frontline worker at Sakigake, he was promoted to its assistant facility director in April 2019. In October of the same year, he also received the “Social Welfare Hero’s” award, established by the National Council of Social Welfare Corporation Managers to recognize enthusiastic young workers at social welfare corporations. So, why did he choose a career in welfare? He had a special attachment to the field.

––What made you decide to work in the welfare field?

From the age of 3 to 20, I grew up with my two elder brothers in a children’s home. My friends could go home to their parents, while I had to go back to a school-like place with so many rules regarding meals, bathing, bedtime, etc. I hated every bit of that life, so I was rebellious and said horrible things to staff members all the time. Every time they yelled at me—e.g., “If you do this, we will kick you out!”—I would say to myself, “I didn’t choose to be here.”

But one staff member was different. When the school would call the home because I’d got into trouble, he would always say to me, “Soya would never do such a thing without reason. Something must have happened, right?” He would lie down next to me in my room, always putting himself in my shoes.

After dropping out of high school, I worked part-time and goofed around. Before I knew it, I was 20, which meant I would have to leave the home and become independent. That was when I finally started thinking about my future. As I looked back on my life, what came to mind was the staff member who had always listened to me. So, I thought I would like to give back to welfare that had supported me, and thus, I became interested in a career in it. I entered a part-time high school and graduated at age 22.

Direct care on the front line: “One shock after another”

––In terms of “giving back to welfare,” what kind of work did you want to do, specifically?

I wanted to be on the front line of the field, be it child protection or other areas like disabilities and older people; I wanted to become part of it as staff. When I told career guidance teachers about this, they brought me some job advertisements, one of which was Minami Yamashiro Gakuen. I liked the place and went for an interview, because it was much larger than the others and offered a variety of programs for older people and those with disabilities. After I was accepted, I shared the news with the staff member who had taken really good care of me at the children’s home. He said to me, “It will be a good fit for you.”

I joined Minami Yamashiro Gakuen in 2010. For the first three years, I worked at an adult day-care center at Kirameki, a long-term care health facility. As a frontline care worker, I had a series of new and overwhelming experiences. Because I had never seen or assisted anyone with bathing or toileting, every experience was like, “Oh, that’s what it’s like.” I also learned that so many people played different roles behind the scenes. Take a care plan, for example. It is a result of hard work and careful consideration by various professionals such as nurses, direct care workers, and care managers.

“Conversation is not the only way to communicate”

––What kind of work did you do after that?

After Kirameki, I worked at the corporate headquarters for three years, in PR and recruitment. Then, in 2016, I moved to Sakigake. After being on the front line, I have been working as the assistant facility director since April 2019, assisting the facility director, negotiating with the local government, managing staff, etc. But I am still on the front line and night shifts regularly, and go to workshops too.

Since I started working at Sakigake, the way I communicate with users has changed. With older people, a conversation is usually enough for communication. With respect to people with disabilities, however, some cannot speak or understand verbal communication.

One time, we had a user who would drink too much water and end up getting water intoxication, no matter how many times we told her not to do this. So, we made cards to explain “why you should not drink too much water” with text and photos. Since she liked to go out with her elder sister when she went home on weekends, we presented a scenario to her in the following order: “Drink too much water → get sick → taken by an ambulance → can’t go out with your sister.” She understood and stopped it immediately. This made me realize that there are many ways to communicate, besides conversations, like photos, drawings, and gestures.

Listening while putting yourself in their shoes

––What other things do you keep in mind when communicating with users?

I would say giving reasons and listening while putting myself in their shoes, just like the staff member did with me to comfort and calm me when I was in the children’s home. It doesn’t matter who I am communicating with—those with disabilities, older people, or others. What matters is that I always try to put myself in their shoes, and think, “How would I feel if I was told this way?” Another thing I keep in mind, which is also Minami Yamashiro Gakuen’s principle, is to keep an appropriate distance from users, neither get too close nor too distant. Even if I do get close to them, I don’t use nicknames, and always address them with the title “san (like Mr. or Ms.).” I also don’t give them orders like, “Do this.”

We value staff communication as well. In particular, we actively incorporate the ideas of young staff members. While experienced workers are always helpful with their knowledge and expertise, I also see great value in young staff members’ latest know-how and innovative ideas. In 2019, a female staff member in her 20s said she would like to organize a department store. So, we actually invited businesses, displayed food and goods in the hall, and sold them. Since users don’t usually get much of an opportunity to shop, they, particularly women, really enjoyed this. The event gave us a chance to see many happy faces.

“Want to transform the image of welfare”

––Do you have future goals and challenges to overcome?

In the future, I would like to be involved in child protection. Like myself, kids in children’s homes will eventually need to go out into the real world and live on their own. That’s why I want to support them in preparing themselves for this while in the homes.

Let me elaborate. I think people still have the image of welfare service providers, including support facilities for people with disabilities, as being closed to the outside world. Today, when you came here, you had to enter through a large gate that was locked. This is inevitable, to a certain extent, for safety reasons because some users do not understand traffic rules. But based on my experience in PR, I want to put more information out and transform this image. That was one of the reasons why I applied for the “Social Welfare Hero’s” award.

Minami Yamashiro Gakuen operates three cafés. For the dishes we serve, we use vegetables grown by people with disabilities as part of their work. At our day-care center, we also run a “children’s cafeteria.” There are other ideas too. For example, we can make our staff training programs open to local residents. I would like to build more connections with the local residents so that they can feel closer to welfare. Eventually, I hope more people will be “interested in working in this field.”

Soya Sato / Assistant Facility Director at Sakigake, a support facility for people with disabilities
Mr. Sato was born in 1987 in Kyoto City. He joined the social welfare corporation Minami Yamashiro Gakuen in 2010. After working at Kirameki (a long-term care health facility) and the corporate headquarters, he started working at Sakigake in 2016 and became the assistant facility director in April 2019. As an active member of “Kyoto DWAT,” a disaster relief team comprising welfare professionals, he also provided support from the welfare perspective to the communities affected by the earthquake in Kumamoto Prefecture and floods in western Japan. In October 2019, he received the “Social Welfare Hero’s” award, which recognizes young workers who keep challenging themselves on the front line of welfare.