The Tokyo Paralympics are acting as a vehicle to improve the take-up of sports by the disabled, but the number of physically active disabled people is still relatively tiny.

Despite the amazing feats demonstrated by the Paralympic athletes competing in Tokyo, for a lot of people with disabilities, participating in sports is a tremendous physical and psychological challenge.

Adults with a disability are half as likely to meet physical activity guidelines through sport or physical recreation than adults without a disability, according to a 2020 study by the Japan Sports Agency.

Studies have indicated that limited access to facilities and lack of opportunities were among the obstacles faced by the group, and coronavirus restrictions have made it even harder to find places and ways to stay active.

Wheelchair user Masaru Taniuchi is an example of someone who tries to stay active while living with a disability.

The 51-year-old visits the Saitama Rehabilitation Center in Ageo, north of Tokyo, once a week to play table tennis and other sports in an environment that offers both specialized equipment and qualified instructors.

Masaru Taniuchi (L) plays table tennis at the Saitama Rehabilitation Center in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, on Aug. 18, 2021. (Kyodo)
Masaru Taniuchi (L) exercises at the Saitama Rehabilitation Center in Ageo in Saitama Prefecture on Aug. 18, 2021. (Kyodo)

"I like to move my body. Here I get to train while getting expert guidance," he said.

Kazumi Tsukagoshi, a spokesperson for the rehab center, said people were allowed to use the facility for up to five days a week before coronavirus social distancing guidelines were put in place. Now they are restricted to a maximum of two days per week.

Not getting enough physical activity can lead to negative health impacts such as reduced walking speed and increased weight, and Tsukagoshi worries about the snowball effect it creates.

"It's a huge blow to their training schedule after all the effort they've put in stay fit. Older people could become bedridden as a result," he said.

According to Japan Sports Agency data, the percentage of able-bodied adults who exercise at least once a week is 59.9 percent, compared to 24.9 for disabled adults, far from the country's target of 40 percent.

The government agency said the coronavirus pandemic is harming public health, with the drop in physical activity correlated to the fear of going out and risking infection with the virus.

A 2018 survey conducted by Sasakawa Sports Foundation showed there are 141 public facilities nationwide that can be used exclusively by, or that give preference to, disabled people.

There are approximately 9.36 million people with some form of disability in Japan, equivalent to about 7.4 percent of the population, according to statistics compiled by the health ministry. Of those, 4.36 million people have physical disabilities.

Kazunari Obuchi, director of policy at Sasakawa Sports Foundation, said the number of sports facilities that are open to people with disabilities has increased since the Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities law took effect in April 2016, but that does not mean they are all welcoming.

Some are hesitant about allowing disabled people to use their facilities due to inaccessible buildings and a lack of fitness specialists to supervise exercise for individuals with special needs.

"Changes should be made one at a time, like first by asking disabled people wanting to use the facility what kind of support services they need," Obuchi said.

He suggests using a special needs school that has met accessibility standards as a disability sport base.

If users have access to disability service providers and the sporting arena becomes a gathering place for school graduates and disabled people in the community, "It will be one solution to barrier-free planning," he said.