Postcard from Beijing... no 9

Beijing’s disabled face many hurdles

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that I am a big fan of Beijing – as is my best friend. Since touching down at Capital Airport last year, we have both fallen head over heels in love with the city. Jianbing for breakfast followed by a stroll through Jinshan Park, shopping at Xiù shuǐjiē and dinner at Donghuamen night market, Da Dong duck restaurant or any one of Beijing’s 60,000 restaurants where you can eat like a king for humble prices – what’s not to love?. Sure, from time to time we might moan (like many Beijingers) about the traffic, pollution, corruption, rising cost of living and conjure up other cities where life is cheaper and cleaner, but the bottom line is this: in Beijing you have everything you want in terms of activity and accessibility and you can’t put a price on that. And if visitors ever had the audacity to breathe a bad word about Beijing, we would bristle and tersely tell them that if they didn’t like China’s cosmopolitan capital, planes and trains depart approximately every four minutes thank you very much.

But in recent weeks, our love affair with Beijing has cooled. To be more specific, ever since my friend broke her ankle and, unable to get to grips with clutches, has taken to a wheel chair, cracks have appeared in Beijing’s armoury. For the fact of the matter is that while Beijing positively welcomes professionals and families, the capital it seems isn’t quite so keen on courting anyone with a disability – as we have discovered to our dismay.

I’m always astounded by the thousands of years of history at my feet when I visit big blockbuster sights like the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven and Great Wall. But I’m newly astounded by how these global icons are no go destinations for wheelchair users. They’re not alone: almost all of the shops, cafes and restaurants that we wanted to enter on Nanluoguxiang last week-end were without wheelchair friendly ramps or slopes – and don’t even get me started on the subject of the toilets. Squat hutong toilets and wheelchairs equals a recipe for disaster. Worst still was the constant snapping. My friend, in her wheelchair, was photographed by curious strangers – often from a distance – on countless occasions which suggests that disabled people have long been hidden from society. Of course my friend is fortunate in that her disability is a temporary state rather than a permanent one. In six weeks she’ll be back on her feet (or rather bike) and able to venture wherever she so pleases. But what of Beijing’s permanently disabled population?

It’s all such a shame. Beijing is striving forward in so many respects; check out cutting edge architecture such as the CCTV building and the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium for starters. Sadly, if our experience is anything to go by, when it comes to disability rights the city still has a long, long way to go…