TOMODACHI Story Jam for Youth with Disabilities is a 9-week digital storytelling and youth leadership program that brings together Japanese and American college students and young professionals with disabilities to collectively explore and identify a moment or moments related to overcoming barriers. Participants will have opportunities to interact with peers from Japan and the US, and to learn about each other’s cultures.
This program is supported by the Northrop Grumman Corporation and Japanese American Citizens League, Sacramento Chapter, and implemented by the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at UMass Boston.
TOMODACHI Story Jam for Youth with Disabilities 2023
Meet the 2023 Story Jam Storytellers
Ayami Azemoto, Staff at Hands On Tokyo
Ayami lives in Yokohama, Japan, and works for the Tokyo based non-profit, Hands On Tokyo. She is also a board member of the Disability Equality Training Forum, leading disability awareness training for government and corporate entities. Ayami has a congenital visual impairment that limits her vision to about a meter. During her university years, Ayami won a prestigious Fellowship from the Duskin Ainowa Foundation, which enabled her to participate in specialized training for visually impaired individuals in California. Reflecting on her time in the US, Ayami said: “This experience gave me the confidence to embrace myself as I am while living with a disability.” Ayami is excited to join the TOMODACHI Story Jam Program to work in solidarity to create a more livable society for people with disabilities.
Briana Livelsberger, Student at University College of Cork
Briana graduated from Goucher College with a bachelor’s degree in literary studies and professional and creative writing. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Gaelic literature through the University College of Cork’s online program in the US. Briana has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Briana’s interest in TOMODACHI Story Jam stems from her curiosity about the experiences of other individuals studying and working with disabilities. Through TOMODACHI Story Jam, she aims to raise awareness about issues impacting the disability community. She has contributed articles to The Mighty and Necessary Behavior discussing disease, disability, and their portrayal in her life and in film. Alongside this, Briana is actively working on novels that feature disabled characters or those that reflect her experiences with disease and disability.
Jeffrey Alex Edelstein, Neurodiverse Program Manager at Berklee Office of Accessibility Resources for Students
Jae lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and works as the Neurodiverse Program Manager at the Berklee Office of Accessibility Resources for Students. In this role, Jae supports neurodivergent students in their college transition through campus programs encompassing training, education, and direct student support.
Prior to joining Berklee College, Jae co-founded and coordinated disability communities at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They also supported similar communities nationwide as a DREAM Coordinator and Board Member with the National Center for College Students with Disabilities. Jae has received clinical diagnoses of Autism and ADHD, in addition to being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. Jae’s engagement in disability activism, especially in college settings, sparked an interest in disability rights in Japan. Though TOMODACHI Story Jam, Jae is excited to connect their experiences with disabled college students’ experiences in Japan.
Katsuki Ono, Entrepreneur and Consultant
Katsuki successfully completed his postgraduate studies at Waseda University Graduate School in 2021. Since then, he has been applying his expertise in startups to engage in projects from venture capital, startup studios, and other emerging companies. Additionally, he manages his own business, which aims to address challenges within the disability sector, with a specific focus on employment-related issues. Katsuki has a progressive disease that has resulted in limited mobility below confined to the neck. Katsuki is deeply immersed in the field of generative AI and has been actively developing a variety of applications, including those for iOS platforms. In the TOMODACHI Story Jam Program, Katsuki is looking forward to learning storytelling and honing his ability to convey messages effectively. He is also excited to meet new friends in the TOMODACHI community.
Kelly Russell, Student at Ohio State University
Kelly is currently a student at Ohio State University, where she is majoring in Japanese. Ever since she was young, Kelly dreamed of going to Japan and earning a PhD, and she is working hard to make both these dreams come true. Kelly has a condition called hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which went undiagnosed for a while. This made it hard for her to talk about her experiences and get the help she needed. After she finally got a diagnosis, Kelly was able to get the support and accommodations she needed to continue her studies. Kelly discovered the TOMODACHI Story Jam Program by accident in an email newsletter. This caught her attention because it offered two things she really wanted: 1) a chance to share her own story and 2) an opportunity to use her Japanese skills outside of her classes.
Kyota Yagi, Staff at Independent Living Center (CIL) Iroha
Kyota works for the Independent Living Center (CIL) Iroha in Ibaraki, Japan. He has a physical disability due to a spinal cord injury at 15. His body movement is limited to above the neck. He uses a stick in his mouth to operate computers and smartphones and controls his electric wheelchair using his chin. At the CIL, Kyota helps people with similar severe disabilities transition from institutions to independent living in the community. In 2017, Kyota had an opportunity to visit the US and engage with American disability leaders. The US disability rights and independent living movement, especially the leadership of the late Judith Heumann, left a lasting impression on him. He is excited to join the TOMODACHI Story Jam Program to learn more about the welfare for persons with disabilities in other countries to advocate for and improve disability welfare in Japan.
Minori Kato, Student at Gifu University
Minori is a student at Gifu University, majoring in disability welfare and journalism. Her goal is to contribute to a society where mobility barriers are eliminated for everyone. She uses Instagram to share wheelchair-accessible restaurant experiences, advocating for universally accessible seating. Minori lives with osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition causing fragile and misshapen bones. In the long term, Minori aspires to become a TV program director, producing content that amplifies marginalized voices and fosters a sense of ownership and representation. In TOMODACHI Story Jam, Minori hopes to learn more about documentary filmmaking. She wants to share her thoughts and feelings about living in Japan with disabled people living in the US and deepen mutual understanding.
Sena Someya, Student at Tokyo University of Science
Sena is a student in the Faculty of Business Administration at Tokyo University of Science. Her research focuses on management, marketing, and gender/minority studies. Recently, she co-authored a paper titled “Success Factors in Gender-Sensitive Advertising,” which she presented at a conference. Beyond academics, Sena lives an active student life, participating in internships, traveling with friends, and finding relaxation by the seaside. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Sena has been using a wheelchair since childhood. She wants to change the negative views about disabilities and wheelchairs by sharing her positive story, showing that people with disabilities can have fun too. By participating in the TOMODACHI Story Jam Program, Sena hopes to share her story and broaden her own way of thinking though cultural exchange with disabled young people throughout the US and Japan.
Sunao Shoji, Staff at a Financial Company
Sunao lives in Hokkaido and works at a financial company in Japan. In addition to his regular office responsibilities, he collaborates with like-minded individuals to support the visually impaired. Diagnosed in his twenties, Sunao is gradually losing his sight. However, he continues to face his personal challenges and wants to assist others in similar situations, all while actively working to address issues related to the employment of people with disabilities. Participating in an international non-profit-sponsored program, Sunao became interested in changing the mindset of people with disabilities and promoting leadership. This led him to apply for TOMODACHI Story Jam Program. Through Story Jam, Sunao hopes to raise awareness about the various challenges faced by individuals with disabilities, shed light on the aspirations of their supporters, and share his own personal journey.
Esperanza Teresa Guadalupe Padilla, Student at University of California, San Francisco
Esperanza Teresa Guadalupe Padilla, AKA “Espi” is a self-advocate who discovered her Autism/ADHD later-in-life, fueling her passion for sociological research on neurodiversity. Previously at the University of California (Cal), Berkeley, Esperanza served as a board member of Spectrum: Autism at Cal (Executive of Education 2020-21; Co-President 2021-22) to promote the inclusion and support of neurodivergent students. At Cal, Esperanza researched the causes/consequences of masking for autistic adults and how to foster unmasking. Esperanza is currently a graduate student in the sociology doctoral program at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She plans to expand on her research as a graduate student to investigate the work experiences of neurodivergent people. Esperanza also seeks to broaden her horizons of what advocacy and support look like outside of a US perspective, with the goal of fostering transnational collaboration among people with disabilities and their advocacy organizations.
TOMODACHI Story Jam for Youth with Disabilities 2022
Meet the 2022 Story Jam Storytellers
Dan Ito, Freelance English Language Teacher Staff at the Center for Independent Living (CIL) Higashiyamato, Tokyo
Dan is a young entrepreneur and linguist who currently lives in Tokyo. He runs his own business teaching English as a freelance English Language Teacher while also working for the Center for Independent Living (CIL) Higashiyamato. Prior to starting his business, Dan lived and studied in Utah in the US for nine years. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in English language and a minor in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). While at the college, Dan also completed other minor course work in civic engagement leadership and was really drawn to this topic and concept. Since returning to Japan in 2019, Dan has been looking for opportunities to get involved in inclusive civic engagement initiatives to leverage his cross-cultural understanding and personal experience of being an individual with a physical disability.
Ryoga Kaneko, College Graduate & Disability Advocate
Ryoga is a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in foreign studies. “Since graduation from the university, my heart has been filled with the passion for seeking the meaning of my life as a disabled [person] and contemplating my life.” As a person with a physical disability (Duchenne muscular dystrophy), Ryoga has been an active and outspoken disability advocate and activist. For example, he wrote about his experience as a college student with a disability navigating access barriers for the (Japan) Nationwide Support Center for Students with Disabilities (NSCSD), a non-profit dedicated to improving college experiences for students with disabilities. He served as a peer mentor to students with disabilities and collaborated with the district where he lives to design and build barrier-free facilities and spaces, such as schools and parks. His professional goal is to become a career counselor for people with disabilities and to establish his own business.
Daisuke Kasanayagi, Staff at DPI-Japan (Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples’ International)
Daisuke hails from Tokyo, where he has been working for the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI-Japan) for the past 11 years. At DPI-Japan, he is responsible for public relations, website presence, and fundraising, which is a new area of focus for the organization. Daisuke is very interested in fundraising for activities that promote disability inclusion. He recently won a prestigious fellowship from the Duskin Ainowa Foundation for emerging Japanese disability rights leaders and activists. For his Duskin Fellowship, he is planning to visit the US to learn about disability, fundraising, and capacity-building with the goal of applying what he learns to his role at DPI-Japan. Daisuke was born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome, a progressive muscle atrophy disability. He has been using a wheelchair for 10 years. For the TOMODACHI Story Jam Program, Daisuke is eager to learn about disability rights and disability advocacy in the US. He wants to hone his communication and presentation skills through digital storytelling so that he can be more efficient and effective in fundraising for DPI-Japan.
Kiina Wakiyama, Student at Waseda University, Social Work Major
Kiina is a social work student at Waseda University. For her final thesis, Kiina is researching the psychological barriers that students with disabilities might face when advocating for themselves and requesting accessibility accommodations in college. Through her research, Kiina seeks to identify effective strategies and practices that can help other students better communicate and navigate the accommodations request process at college and in life more broadly. After graduating from college, Kiina plans to enroll in graduate school. Kiina was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome when she was in high school. She learned how to advocate for herself through the DO-IT Japan Program, a disability advocacy skills training program for youth and young people implemented by the Tokyo University Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology (RCAST). Going through this program helped Kiina re-focus her life and future goals.
Yui Higashikawa, Waitress at the Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β by OryLab Inc., and Artist
Yui hails from Fukuoka. She currently works as a remote waitress for the Avatar Robot Café in Tokyo. This is an experimental business by OryLab Inc., where people with disabilities from Japan and across the globe can work for pay by remotely controlling robots called OriHime. Yui is also an artist and a certified pastel art instructor. In her free time, she volunteers at a local junior high school teaching English, math, and pastel arts. She graduated from Chikushi Jogakuen University in Fukuoka with an English language degree. While at college in 2015, Yui won a prestigious fellowship from the Duskin Ainowa Foundation to participate in a 5-month intensive disability advocacy and leadership program at the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI), University of Massachusetts Boston in the United States. Yui is very passionate about disability advocacy and using the arts as a space to bring people with and without disabilities together to create more inclusive communities.
Rachel Clarke, Graduate Student, Sacred Hart University, Global Studies Major
Rachel graduated from Norwalk Community College and is now a junior at Sacred Heart University, where she majors in global studies with a minor in business administration. Eight years ago, Rachel emigrated to the United States from Liberia. Her professional goal is to pursue a career in the foreign or diplomatic service. She hopes to become a US Ambassador one day. Toward this goal, Rachel is seeking opportunities beyond her academic studies to learn and gain experience in international relations. This prompted her to apply to the TOMODACHI Story Jam Program to learn about Japan and Japanese culture. In addition to college, Rachel also holds a part-time job.
Christian (Chris) J Pancheco, Graduate Student, University of Michigan, Public Health Major
For 22 years, Chris’s goal was to go to medical school and become a doctor. He graduated from high school and went to college at the State University of New York (SUNY), Fredonia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular genetics with a minor in chemistry and music. In 2019, soon after graduation, Chris got a job at Rockefeller University in New York City. During his employment at Rockefeller, Chris suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with long-lasting signs of ataxia and tremors. He has not let his acquired disability prevent him from continuing his studies. This fall, Chris is attending the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for his master’s degree in public health.
Robert Carley, Self-Advocacy Coordinator at the Institute for Disability Studies (IDS), University of Southern Mississippi
Robert hails from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he has been working as a self-advocacy coordinator for the Institute for Disability Studies (IDS) at the University of Southern Mississippi for the past seven years. Robert identifies as a person with a disability and has always pushed himself to strive for new opportunities. He has his own YouTube series called “Chit Chat Thursday with Taylor” where he promotes disability self-advocacy and features guest speakers. His primary audience are friends, peers, colleagues, mentors, and others. Robert has always been interested in meeting people from other countries and cultures and learning about how people with disabilities fare and advocate for themselves in those countries and communities. This interest, combined with his skills and passion to use digital media for disability advocacy, prompted him to apply to the TOMODACHI Story Jam Program. Through Story Jam, Robert hopes to hone his digital media skills and become more effective in crafting disability advocacy messages.
Deidra A Denson, Graduate Student, Regent University, Government/International Relations Major
Deidra is currently a student at Regent University pursuing a master’s degree in government with a concentration in international relations. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and Hispanic studies. As an undergraduate student, Deidra lived with American and Japanese students and participated in Japan-American Student Conferences. She really enjoyed this experience. Deidra’s hometown, Newport News, Virginia, has a sister city in Japan called Neyagawa. Deidra has been involved with Sister Cities International (SCI), a non-profit that brings together citizen diplomats and volunteers from the US and foreign countries. Deidra currently serves on the SCI Neyagawa committee. Through these activities, Deidra’s interest in Japan and Japanese culture has prompted her to learn Japanese language. Deidra is eager to go to Japan and is actively exploring opportunities for an internship with an organization that focuses on USJapan relations.
Louis (Lou), College Graduate & Disability Advocate
Lou hails from New York and has extensive experience in disability rights advocacy at a state and national level. He recently completed the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) – Congressional Fellowship Program. As part of the Fellowship, Lou worked in the Office of Representative Marilyn Strickland (WA-10). Prior to this, he interned for one summer with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission through the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), which Lou said has been instrumental in the development of his advocacy. Lou is a proud member of the Young Democrats of America, and is currently serving as the Secretary of the Young Democrats of America Disability Issues Caucus and the Vice-Chair of the New York State Young Democrats. Lou’s professional goal is to work as a civil rights lawyer specializing in disability rights.
TOMODACHI Story Jam for Youth with Disabilities 2021
Participants of the TOMODACHI Story Jam for Youth with Disabilities Share Lessons Learned in the Time of COVID-19
In November 2021, the final event for the TOMODACHI Story Jam for Youth with Disabilities was held online, and a total of 52 people including program participants joined the event. The eight-week digital storytelling and youth leadership program brought together ten Japanese and American college students and young professionals with disabilities to collectively explore experiences in the time of COVID-19. At the final event in November, the program culminated in the screening of the participants’ advocacy story video. Participants reflected on their program experience and shared their thoughts on how they will use new leadership skills, storytelling, and advocacy resources in the future. Read More>>