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Seeing the world from 1-meter high
26/2/2005 8:53

Shanghai Daily news

Groups of volunteers have got off their feet and into wheelchairs to see what everyday life in Shanghai is like for those unable to walk. Xu Wei reports that a lot more needs to be done to help the city's estimated 500,000 wheelchair-bound people.
Getting around the city amid all the hustle and bustle is an ordinary daily experience for most people but for the disabled, it can be an adventure. And it's only when one experiences what such an ``adventure'' is like that the difficulties the disabled face all the time can be understood.
``It's hard to imagine the threats that steps, elevators, escalators and even restrooms may pose to people in wheelchairs,'' says volunteer worker Cao Kun. ``But now my fellow volunteers and I understand.'' Cao is a volunteer in a program entitled, ``Wheelchair Experience and Accessibility Facility Survey,'' initiated by the Wheelchair Foundation, a non-profit organization that is part of an international effort to help wheelchair-bound people in their daily lives. The program encourages ordinary people to experience what life is like for those in a wheelchair and the ultimate aim is to help make the city's facilities more ``friendly'' to the disabled. Cao, a 21-year-old machinist, has finished his ``wheelchair experience'' and has made a careful inspection of the access available to wheelchair users at stops along the city's metro lines. ``Last August when I read about the volunteer recruitment at it occurred to me that I had a responsibility to extend more care to this disadvantaged group,'' Cao says. The program Cao joined had the apt title, ``Seeing the World from 1-Meter High,'' and it gave the volunteers a different view of the world from the one most of us know. It's also a world we cannot even imagine. From last August to October, after a total of 49 volunteers were trained in how to use wheelchairs safely, they set off to spend their leisure time going around Shanghai in wheelchairs to gain hands-on experience so they could begin to understand the everyday difficulties confronting disabled people. They visited major public facilities in wheelchairs to test how ``friendly'' its access was and how it could be improved. ``The campaign is the first of its kind in Shanghai and even in China,'' says Yan Ling, an official with the Wheelchair Foundation China Office. ``Experiencing life as a physically disabled person can help people discover facts of life they would never have imagined before.'' The volunteers were divided into seven groups, with six of them conducting surveys in the bigger business districts around town and one group researching all the metro lines. Each group was provided with two wheelchairs, and except for the group surveying the metro lines, all the others were required to complete three questionnaires. The focus of the questionnaires was on ease of wheelchair travel along the streets, wheelchair access inside major buildings and people's attitudes towards the disabled when they encountered them in wheelchairs. When conducting the survey, each group split into two teams while one volunteer sat in a wheelchair and went through the streets or buildings in a selected area. One volunteer kept an eye on the wheelchair user from a distance and provided assistance when necessary and the other team conducted the survey, completed the questionnaire and took photographs. Anyone who thinks it would be easy to manage a wheelchair will be proved to be so wrong as Cao and his group found on their first day. ``The minute I sat on a wheelchair and moved along the street, my world suddenly shrank because of the low height,'' Cao recalls. ``I was sort of scared to face the road in front of me, not to mention steep slopes and you also have to put up with the curious eyes and looks on the faces of passers-by. I told myself I must be brave and endure all of it to complete the survey.'' ``Seeing the World from 1-Meter High'' means you may encounter problems even at places you normally pass through every day. Once, when Cao tried to get off a train at a metro stop, the front wheels of his chair became wedged in the gap between the train and platform. ``I was so frightened at that moment as the door of the train was about to close,'' Cao says. ``Without help from my teammates, it could have been very dangerous. I can imagine that when a disabled person is traveling in a wheelchair on his own, even the simple action of getting on or off a train or bus can become `mission impossible'.'' Cao's words were echoed by Chen Shixin, another volunteer and a student from the Sociology Department of Fudan University. ``When I went shopping in a wheelchair at a convenience store, I couldn't reach the yogurt on the shelf and the two shop assistants just stood by and seemed reluctant to offer a hand,'' Chen says. ``It almost broke my heart and made me wonder why there wasn't a shelf especially provided for the disabled.'' Based on their survey, a city guidebook written in Chinese and designed for wheelchair users has just been completed. The book is called ``Operation Mobility'' and provides detailed information on wheelchair accessibility, where and how to take a bus or the metro, which shopping mall or library is wheelchair friendly and where washrooms for the disabled are located in the city. It is the first of its kind in China and will be updated every year and distributed free to wheelchair users. A trial version of the guidebook is expected to come out later this month. ``With information covering traffic, education, dining, shopping and entertainment venues, people in wheelchairs will have a clearer picture of the easily accessible facilities in town and won't have to isolate themselves by staying at home,'' says Tang Xiaoyan, an administrative employee with a local company and a voluntary editor of the booklet. ``I'm so pleased to have been a helper to help fulfill the dreams wheelchair people have of being more mobile and of touring,'' Cao says beaming. According to the China Disabled Persons' Federation, in China today nearly 9 million people need to use wheelchairs. In Shanghai the figure is estimated to be around 500,000. Although increased attention has been paid to the needs of the disabled in newly constructed buildings in the city where specially designed elevators and sloping paths have been installed, a lot more work still needs to be done. For example, some ramps for wheelchairs are too precipitous and in the streets, the intervals at many traffic lights are too short for the disabled to be able to get safely across the intersection. And some entry points for wheelchairs on the metro lines are hard to find. ``Sidewalks for the blind and the ramps for wheelchairs are even occupied improperly by bicycles or cars and in some restrooms, wheelchair people can't reach the clothes racks,'' Yan says. ``In the near future, the campaign will be extended to a nationwide project with Beijing and Guangzhou as the next two cities to promote an obstacle-free environment for the disabled.'' Chen Cun, a well-known local writer and a wheelchair user because of a severe spinal disease, appreciates the dedication shown by the foundation and volunteers. ``This campaign is very meaningful, not only to the people confined to wheelchairs because of physical disabilities but also to ordinary persons who may eventually have need of a wheelchair when they are older,'' Chen says.