Launched in the fall semester of AY2022, the @ease project is an initiative that supports students, faculty, and staff members with disabilities. A key feature of the project's implementation involves various departments collaborating and working together to build a support system tailored to individual needs. This approach helps to prevent social isolation among persons with disabilities and ensures that all relevant departments can directly engage as active stakeholders in addressing their needs.
As @ease supporters, undergraduate and graduate students are recruited through an open call twice a year—once in spring and again in summer—to play a significant role in this project. Those selected work closely with the coordinators of the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the Office of Accessible Education, who oversee the project, to support persons with disabilities on all Keio University campuses. Unlike conventional volunteers, @ease supporters are entitled to compensation for their work.
"The number of applicants we received for the first call in the summer of 2021 greatly exceeded our expectations," says Yumiko Shimada, coordinator at the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. "There was a strong sense that many of the students were eagerly anticipating such a project," she adds.
Kenta Shobu (a second-year master's student at the Graduate School of Science and Technology) is part of the first cohort of @ease supporters, which has been active since 2021. Shobu provides wheelchair assistance for university staff at Yagami Campus while undertaking graduate research in molecular simulation.
"I help them get around when they go out to buy lunch, and then we eat together. When I was in elementary school, I had classmates who had physical or developmental disabilities, so helping out is nothing out of the ordinary for me. Whenever I see someone in need, it's my instinct to try and help out. For me, being an @ease supporter is a natural extension of that," Shobu says.
In addition to wheelchair and mobility assistance, @ease supporters provide digital note-taking support and assist with speech-to-text transcriptions of lectures for students with hearing difficulties. As part of their role in information accessibility (providing support to people with hearing and visual difficulties to ensure equal access to necessary information), @ease supporters are also responsible for digitizing educational materials used in lectures and adding subtitles to live streams of university ceremonies and other events.
Reflecting on his activities over the past year, Shobu says, "Through activities such as training and assistance, I was reminded that everyone needs equal access to educational opportunities, and this requires consideration for each individual. It may be obvious, but not everyone requires the same kinds of support. Recognizing each person's specific needs leads to equity in the truest sense," he states.
Aoi Yoshizawa (a third-year student at the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies) had her first experience with disability support in a class during her second year. Feeling that she would gain new insights and grow as an individual by interacting with persons with disabilities, Yoshizawa decided to apply to become an @ease supporter. While providing mobility assistance for students with visual difficulties at SFC, Yoshizawa shares that although she initially felt some uncertainty about how to interact with people who have disabilities, her experiences and training have taught her the importance of relating to each person as an individual beyond any disabilities.
Students selected as @ease supporters undergo training that includes note-taking and subtitling, taking the Universal Manners Test, and participating in other necessary workshops in order to develop the practical skills and mindset required for providing safe and appropriate support. Yoshizawa is also involved in an off-campus organization that aims to realize an inclusive society free from discrimination and prejudice, and she hopes to eventually apply these experiences to her undergraduate research.
Yuma Morisaki (a first-year student at the Faculty of Letters) has been a wheelchair user since senior high school. Since starting university, Morisaki has been accompanied by @ease supporters to get around campus.
"My supporter would ask me if I wanted to go see the classrooms I might use in the future whenever we had time and take me to classrooms I hadn't been to yet. This really left an impression on me. It was reassuring as I started my university life.”
Morisaki, who wanted to become a supporter herself, says that the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion responded positively to her inquiry about becoming a supporter. "I was thrilled and applied soon after. It wasn't long before I was hired as an @ease supporter," she says.
Coordinator Shimada explains that the name "@ease" (at ease) is meant to encompass feelings of comfort, tranquility, and calmness. "Together with our students, we hope to create a campus environment where everyone can feel safe and at ease. In line with the supporters' enthusiasm and expectations, we are committed to further enhancing the scope of the project," she adds.
In Part Two, the three supporters featured in this interview will be joined by Shimada and Fumihiko Chimura, a Yagami Campus administrative staff member who receives assistance from @ease supporters. They'll share insights about the present and future of the project.
*All affiliations, years, and titles are current as of the time of their respective publication.