USA is the best country in the world for the disabled! (Or not?)

When my twins were about three years old, we were at a party with several bicultural families. One guest, an American married to a Japanese woman, and father of three neurotypical children, looked at my daughter and said, “We always said that if we had a child with a disability, we would move back to the United States.”

I had just met this guy for the first time. I murmured something non-committal, but I was irked by the implicit criticism: My daughter was deaf and she couldn’t walk. As an American, I had the option of bringing her to the United States of America, which was presumed to be far more progressive concerning rights for the disabled. By choosing to remain in Japan with my Japanese husband (who was nevertheless assured of lifetime employment, and could provide cheap, quality healthcare), I was compromising my daughter’s future.

Over the years, I would hear variations on this theme. When I complained to the teachers at the School for the Deaf about the lack of English instruction for my daughter, or the absence of an elevator, they suggested that I bring her to America for her education. My daughter was born in Japan, and had never lived in America, although she has had an American passport since before her first birthday. And I do know international couples who have moved from Japan to the United States in order to better accommodate their children’s disabilities.

My daughter loves America. When she is having trouble with the mean girls in her school dormitory, she tells me that she wants to live in the United States. People are kinder there, she thinks. In New York City, where people can be brusque and brash, a vendor gave her a free smoothie just because. (Because she was in a wheelchair? Out of pity? Maybe.)

I love America, too, and I often imagine that it would have been ten times easier to bring my daughter up in my native country, within driving distance of relatives, in my native language. In the United States, I could have hired babysitters and gone on date nights with my husband, and no one would have thought I was being selfish. In Japan, however, I was the last mother in my daughter’s kindergarten class to master fingerspelling in Japanese. Who knows how far that set her back in her linguistic and social development? I struggled with the reams of paperwork in Japanese, which I botched half the time, and my bento box lunches were always subpar. I became incensed every time we couldn’t enter a building because there was no ramp for my daughter’s wheelchair. I couldn’t seem to make friends with the other, mostly younger, mothers – those makers of awesome bento box lunches, those masters of JSL fingerspelling – so my daughter had no friends who were deaf to play with outside of school.

But I also remind myself of the good, like that moment when I heard that my newly-born twins would be in the NICU for up to four months, and I thought that we were going to have to sell our house, and then learned that insurance would cover everything. And the fact that the National Healthcare System in Japan provides free healthcare for all children up to six years of age. My daughter has had a rich and varied education, which included Y.M.C.A. camp, with kayaking and canoeing, ballet workshops with professional dancers, overnight excursions to Nagasaki and Tokyo, and work experience. Although I complain about the lack of a school bus, my daughter is entitled to half-price fares on buses, planes, and trains, which has enabled us to travel. I have done my best to show her other parts of the world, in case it turns out that I was wrong to keep her here and she wants to live somewhere else someday.

Thanks to her teachers, she has learned to read and write in Japanese. After several lonely years, she took the initiative to create a social life for herself. Now, she organizes mall excursions, sleepovers, and movie-outings with friends on her own. She has developed hobbies, including a passion for manga and anime, and has proven herself to be a talented artist – all with little help from me. On a recent visit to the States, she communicated with her American cousins via Google translate. When I think back to her earliest years, when she was in and out of hospitals with various respiratory ailments and it seemed a challenge just to keep her alive, I am nothing but relieved.

My daughter recently turned eighteen. She is now old enough to vote in both of her countries, and she’s looking forward to exercising that right. She will graduate from high school in just a few months, and then, if all goes according to plan, she will leave home to live in a group home in another city, where she will learn life skills. Maybe someday she will live alone, or with a friend. Maybe she will get married! Maybe she will be able to get a job and support herself.

According to Japanese law, in two years, when she is twenty, she must settle on one nationality. As her American mother, it will make me sad if she chooses to be only Japanese. And yet, I read the newspaper, I listen to the news, I follow my Twitter feed, and I hear that under the current administration, the rights of the disabled in my native country are at risk. I wonder if my daughter would even be able to get health insurance? Now, she is an American citizen with an American passport and Social Security Number. She has the right to live and pursue happiness in the United States. May that be true next year, and the next, and the ones after that.


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