By Peter Stebbings
Cars, scooters and bicycles wait impatiently at traffic lights ready to zip across one of Shanghai’s main roads. In the thick of them sits an old man in an electric wheelchair.
Nearby, another wheelchair user is pushed along in the street as traffic whizzes past just inches away.
Busy, narrow or clogged pavements — haphazard rows of rentable bikes are a prime offender — sometimes force people in wheelchairs to brave the busy downtown roads of China’s biggest city.
Overpasses seemingly constructed with little regard for people with disabilities, uneven pavements, badly made ramps and patchy access to public transport can also make life difficult for “wheelers”.
They say that the situation is even worse outside China’s first-tier cities but is generally improving compared to just a few years ago.
Zhao Hongcheng is a video blogger who highlights the challenges she faces in Shanghai and other cities.
Now 31, she contracted polio as a baby and has been in a wheelchair since she was 11.
Wheelchair users in roads or bike lanes are an incongruous sight, but it is also noticeable how few people with disabilities are out in public.
“You rarely see them because, first of all, barrier-free travel is not perfect so it is difficult for people (in wheelchairs) to travel farther than two kilometres (1.2 miles),” said Zhao, whose videos can draw nearly 500,000 views.
“Secondly, wheelchair users still face difficulties getting into education and employment,” added Zhao, who recently left her job working for a food delivery platform for reasons unrelated to her condition.
Car park tragedy
Information on the number of wheelchair users among China’s 1.4 billion population is elusive.
But state-run media says there are 85 million disabled people and President Xi Jinping has called them “a group with special difficulties that require extra care and attention”.
In 2019, Xi said that “no disabled person should be left behind”.
Despite China’s rapid and recent modernisation, attitudes towards people with disabilities and facilities for them have lagged.
Huang Yan, who is also in a wheelchair, says things are gradually changing.
“Ten years ago many people would look at people in wheelchairs as alien objects,” said the 39-year-old, who works in e-commerce.
After a day out with other wheelchair users at a Shanghai park where cherry blossoms were in bloom, she related the tragic story of her friend Wen Jun.
He made headlines in 2019 when he plunged to his death in an underground car park while assessing wheelchair access in the southwestern city of Dali.
With a ramp for wheelchairs blocked by vehicles, Wen took a detour and could not see the sheer drop.
“He advocated barrier-free travel and was probably the first person to lead us disabled people out of the house and into society,” said Huang.
“He didn’t want us to be invisible any more.”
‘You will see us’
Huang and Zhao, the video blogger, are not afraid to tell the authorities when they encounter a problem.
Sometimes issues such as blocked wheelchair exits or inaccessible public toilets get fixed. Sometimes not. Most often they just overcome the obstacle with their own determination.
They say that while some elderly people often take to Shanghai’s busy roads in wheelchairs, it is not generally necessary and definitely not safe.
Zhao knows first-hand: a car struck her from behind while in her wheelchair on a road in the nearby city of Hangzhou. Fortunately she was not badly hurt.
Old attitudes have sometimes proved hard to shift.
Zhao receives online messages from fellow wheelchair users who tell her of their problems, including universities revoking admission after realising they are disabled.
“I think it’s really heartbreaking,” she said.
Zhao, who bucked the trend with a Masters degree, also says that too often she faces the humiliation of being asked by strangers why she is in a wheelchair.
“Many people think that the disabled live on an island and are completely disconnected from the masses,” she said.
“In fact, we are integrated in society and it is very likely that you will see us.
“If we really get to know each other, you will find that we have a lot in common.”