by Alexander Tothill-Brown
Published on: Feb 19, 2006
Type: Interviews

A friend of mine has been attending high school in Osaka, Japan since August 2005 and living with a series of host families. Before leaving her home in Ottawa, Canada, she took a complete medical. Her doctor filled out a declaration stating all existing health concerns she was suffering.

My friend has been suffering from migraines since she was about ten years old. Her doctor detailed the history of her headaches as well as the various medicines she has taken and currently takes. She left nothing out so that her new school and host families would not be surprised when she would go to her bedroom, draw the curtains and wait out the migraine.

In North America, migraines are commonly discussed. Even if they are not thoroughly understood, most people empathize with those afflicted by them. My friend arrived in Japan with enough migraine medication to last for one year, so that she would avoid having to find a local doctor willing to extend her prescription.

In mid-October one afternoon, her first migraine hit while she was at school. Instead of allowing her to excuse herself and find sanctuary in a darkened room away from the bright lights of the classroom, everyone (including the teacher) crowded around her, demanding to know what the matter was with her head. Her school counsellor, who was aware that she was prone to migraines, was called in. He informed her classmates that she was not contagious, but that she had a “head problem.” She remembers thinking that this was a strange way to describe a migraine, but she was in no condition to argue.

The next day she returned to school headache-free, but noticed that girls who had been friendly with her before were now noticeably distant when they talked to her. Instead of being asked to eat at their table during lunch period, she was left sitting by herself at a large table. All around her, students were crowded onto benches that were full to overflowing. Within a week of her first migraine, her counsellor told her that her host family had requested that she be removed from their home, and that a new family be found for her. No explanation was given as to their reasons for not allowing her to stay. But she had her suspicions.

A migraine in November and another one in early December resulted in two more moves from the homes of host families. They were no longer willing to keep her. As well, social isolation at her school increased. During Christmas Break, her school counsellor informed her that he was unable to convince any families at the school to take her. She would be sent home to Canada in January.

She reminded her counsellor that nothing warranted her expulsion from the program. Her health form had been translated into Japanese, so there were no misunderstandings about her medical condition. He told her that the school principal felt he could no longer accommodate a student who was “sick in the head.” It took several e-mails and phone calls between Canada and Japan to convince the counsellor to find another school for her to attend.

In early January, she was told to pack her bags once again. She was relocated to Kobe, where she is currently living with a family who has an epileptic child. Epilepsy is also considered a ‘head problem’ –perhaps that is why she has been welcomed into this family. This move out of Osaka has resulted in her having to change schools but so far, the students, teachers and principal have accepted her. Now that she knows the Japanese foods that trigger her migraines, she hopes she will not have many before returning home in late June.

This is just one person’s experience in Japan and it may be unique to the circumstances my friend has found herself in; but it is interesting to realize that not everyone in this world understands or appreciates the fact that people with disabilities need understandng - and not our fear of the unknown.

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