A senior woman rests on a foldable chair in Heping District of Tianjin Municipality on October 27, 2022. The handrail and foldable chair were installed in the building where she lives to make it easier for seniors to move up and down the stairs (XINHUA)
Chen Miaoxi encounters many inconveniences as she moves about in her home city. The 33-year-old from Zunyi in Guizhou Province lost both legs in a traffic accident when she was 2.
Chen told Beijing Review that the pedestrian overpasses don't have elevators and she often has to take many detours to reach destinations in her wheelchair. Also, the entries of many of the city's buildings are not equipped with wheelchair ramps. These inconveniences have reduced her inclination to go out.
Pan Haixiao, a professor at the Urban Mobility Institute at Tongji University in Shanghai, recently led research on the barrier-free facilities at the university's campuses.
"Through our research, we found that the seemingly barrier-free campuses have many barriers, not only for older people or pregnant women among faculty and staff members but also for students who suffer sports-related injuries and need to get around with the help of crutches or wheelchairs," Pan told Shanghai-based media platform Shanghai Observer.
One student majoring in engineering, who had relied on a wheelchair for several months, was unable to conduct experiments as he was unable to reach the workbenches in the lab. Another student was unable to use squat toilets as his leg had been injured, and on one occasion, it took him 40 minutes to find a barrier-free toilet.
The problems Chen faces and those uncovered by Pan have drawn the attention of lawmakers.
On June 28, a new law on building a barrier-free living environment was adopted by Chinese lawmakers during a three-day session of the Standing Committee of the 14th National People's Congress (NPC), the nation's top legislature.
The eight-chapter law, which will take effect on September 1, makes provisions regarding the construction of accessible facilities, as well as making information and social services more accessible to those with disabilities.
This is the first time China has enacted a specific law on the construction of a barrier-free living environment, which aims to improve the daily life of both people with disabilities and senior citizens.
A resident of Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, enters a local residents' service center with the aid of a wheelchair ramp and a member of the center's staff on December 3, 2022 (XINHUA)
Shao Lei, head of the Institute for Accessibility Development at Tsinghua University, told China Central Television that China started building a barrier-free environment in the 1980s when the country began formulating regulations to facilitate travel for people with disabilities. In 2012, the State Council issued its first regulation on building a barrier-free environment.
Shao said compared with the regulation, the new law is more legally binding. As the building of a barrier-free environment involves many government departments and industries, the law will provide the legal basis for clarifying the responsibilities of different entities and for different entities to coordinate with each other in such endeavors.
Shi Hong, an official from the NPC Standing Committee's Legislative Affairs Commission, said the enactment of the law is of great importance to the protection of the rights of the disabled and the elderly, which will further promote the advancement of China's human rights.
China currently has about 85 million people with disabilities and the population of people aged 60 years and above had reached 267 million by late 2021.
"Improving the barrier-free environment by eliminating visible and invisible barriers in public facilities, information and social services will help ensure fairer and more efficient participation of people with disabilities and seniors in social activities," Shi said.
Pan said that at some point in their lives, people may encounter the same difficulties faced by people with disabilities, as few people are completely exempted from illness or difficulty getting around.
Therefore, the building of a barrier-free environment will not only clear obstacles for people with disabilities but also benefit other members of society, Pan said.
Shi said the law has focused on addressing the issues of most pressing concern for the people.
During this year's annual session of the NPC in March, Wang Yongcheng, a deputy to the NPC, who is visually impaired, suggested increasing the publication and supply of large-print editions of textbooks to meet the needs of students with poor eyesight. In response to Wang's suggestion, the new law stipulates that the government encourages the compiling and publishing of Braille and large-print editions of textbooks to meet the needs of visually challenged students.
As for the small-print instructions usually found on user manuals, especially those for medicines, the law prescribes that pharmaceutical manufacturers and operators should provide audio, large-print, electronic and other barrier-free versions.
Clearing digital barriers
Shao said in an increasingly digitalized world, the building of a barrier-free society has expanded to include not only infrastructure but also information services and digital products.
The law states that the government encourages the research, development and application of barrier-free technologies, products and services; and supports the application of such new technologies through funding and tax incentives.
On June 29, one day after the adoption of the new law, Chinese Internet giant Tencent signed a strategic cooperation agreement with several non-profit organizations under the China Disabled Persons' Federation (CDPF) to explore the innovation of barrier-free products and services and establish an innovation lab that will recruit 10,000 users with disabilities to participate in the development of products.
Lu Shiming, Vice President of the CDPF, said at the agreement signing ceremony that it is hoped that Tencent can leverage its advantages in scientific and technological innovation to develop high-quality, barrier-free information services and create more opportunities for people with disabilities to take part in social life.
Prior to the announcement of the new law, Tencent had already made many innovations in developing barrier-free products.
In 2019, the company launched an alarm system called "Invisible Caregivers" that employs more than 100 detectors to sense when an elderly person falls and then calls for an ambulance.
In June, it launched an online Xiangqi, or Chinese chess app, for visually impaired people.
The game reminds players of the position of the chess pieces through voice prompts and the players move the pieces by sending voice commands.
Pan, the professor at Tongji University, called for establishing a platform through which people can report problems they find in using barrier-free facilities and give suggestions on improving such facilities.
He also suggested making breakthroughs in areas where barrier-free facilities are in urgent need such as public transportation systems and hospitals. He cited the example of two elevators installed for an overpass near Shanghai General Hospital, which has brought patients great convenience.
He said the building of a barrier-free environment is a systematic project that requires the collaboration of multiple sectors and can't be accomplished all at once. Only when people's travel safety and convenience are given priority in city planning, construction and management can residents' living environments be continuously improved.
(Print Edition Title: Accessibility for All)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org