China Wasn’t Built for Wheelchairs, But That is Starting to Change

I lived in China for almost three years before I saw someone in public in a wheelchair, and I have yet to see anyone using one under their own power. I think this is largely because China wasn’t built for wheelchairs.

Even in the big cities, it’s hard to find a side walk that would be suitable for rolling, and almost every building has a half dozen steps to the front door. For most of China’s physically disabled people, I would imagine it is difficult to even leave their home, since buildings with less than 8 floors typically do not have elevators. This also includes schools and practically every government building. Not only are there few programs for physical rehabilitation, but they literally can’t even access the public education they are entitled to.

One of my neighbors here in Nanjing seems to have limited mobility due to her age, and the only choice for her family is to carry her and then her wheelchair up to the fourth floor. It must be tiring and frustrating for her family that there is no easier way. I also once saw an elderly man carried across a busy street by a stranger, it was touching, awkward, and more than a little confusing for everyone involved.

At the moment, the only physical disabled people that most Chinese people are familiar with are the beggars who wait next to bus stops and subway stations. Often they display their amputation site, or sit with their broken legs on small sleds with wheels. They are stripped of their dignity because of their impairments, and at the same time it is the lack of respect for these people that keep them from holding more honorable positions.

Slowly though, China is starting to build more facilities for these individuals. Many of Beijing’s new subway stations have elevators, and just today I saw that one station had been retrofitted with a stairway lift. As more and more handicapped people are able to leave their homes and show that they can also be productive members of society (and contribute to their families wealth) I think their position in society could improve rapidly.

The big set back is that China has built tens of thousands of new buildings in the last 20 years, without any standards for accessibility. I hope that very soon this will become a priority for the gov’t, because at the moment children with physical handicaps are still seen as such a burden on the family that some would rather have them aborted (read my post, A fight at the hospital).

12 responses to “China Wasn’t Built for Wheelchairs, But That is Starting to Change”

  1. Another positive post 🙂

  2. If you think China is in serious shortfall of facilities for the disable, then the situation is much, much worse in the little cramped place of Hong Kong, a.k.a. the City of Stairs. I spent a little more than 37 months in crutches that ended only in July 2010. In a place like Hong Kong, where people are billed as ‘advanced’ or ‘enlightened’ in their attitudes to the ‘mobility-challenged,’ it really opens up your eyes to be at the receiving end of people’s general conduct when having to live through using crutches. To cut a long story short, it had been 37 long months of jostling, shoving, elbowing, stink-eyeing and even outright telling-off from fellow Hongkongers. The even bigger insult was to have been treated as mentally defective merely on the strength of seeing the use of crutches – as if mental disability correlates with physical disability. If the attitudes of the Hong Kong Chinese are anything to go by, I hate to imagine what the disabled had to live through on the mainland. And to think the Cantonese claim themselves to be the most compassionate of all Chinese peoples! It really doesn’t inspire much confidence, does it?

  3. RevGer says:

    I remember thinking something similar when I was in Taipei a decade ago.

  4. FrankL says:

    I was recently in Japan and was surprised to find that in many Tokyo subway and train stations there are no elevators. We had to lug our heavy backs up stairs to reach one platform on the Yamanote line. We asked about an elevator and were told that they are now (then Oct 2010) building one.

    In another subway station I saw a person in a wheelchair being loaded on to an escalator (stopped) by the transit worker. The escalator was being used exclusively to bring the wheelchair and person to the next floor. So perhaps the lack of wheelchair/handicapped access is more an east Asian phenomena?

  5. FrankL says:

    Sorry, that should be “bags” not “backs” that we lugged up the stairs.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You can check out this post about accessibility in Beijing Alongside Shenzhen, Beijing is by far the most accessible city with ALL buildings being built after 2001 required to have accessible entrances, elevators, etc. and all subway stations being accessible (with elevators or retro-fitted ramps).

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for the link with a few more specifics.
      Like most things in China, just because there is a policy, doesn’t mean it is enforced. There might be elevators or lifts put in, and then after the inspection they are turned off. I would hope that these policies would be more wide spread than a few cities, and hope that these policies will actually be enforced.

  7. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← China Wasn’t Built for Wheelchairs, But That is Starting to Change […]

  8. Jin Zhao says:

    When I first came to the States, I was baffled how many disable people I saw in public. I had never seen that many disabled people in public in China. Then I realized that it wasn’t because there are not that many disabled people in China, but because public facilities are not accessible to them and they are confined home. This is an issue that has been overlooked forever. The disabled are invisible to the public in China.

  9. Tim Corbin says:

    I always found it hard not to sate when I did see someone in China who was disabled – purely because it’s so rare. In a country with more than a billion people there have to be huge numbers of disabled folks.
    In regards to those subway stair lifts. Has anyone ever seen one of those in action? They seriously are the slowest things ever. They have one at the B Exit for Jianguomen in Beijing. That thing must take 10 minutes to get from top to bottom…

  10. […] The other project was started by a graduate who was interested in special education. He realized that for the most part, schools for disabled children did little to educate the families about their children’s needs. His new NGO provides in home care for these children, allowing the parents some help, but also teaching the family new ways of meeting the challenges their children face. His project is currently being reviewed for a grant from the US gov’t, and I sincerely hope that they recognize the value of his work (for further reading check out my post: The plight of the mentally disabled and China wasn’t built for wheelchairs). […]

  11. Miranda says:

    Tom, some friends of mine work with a school for the Deaf in Hunan and recently posted about the sacrifices families of Deaf children must make. You may be interested:

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