Planes, Trains, and Automobiles . . . and Ferries and Buses and Trams

PSA: This post ended up being very long. It summarizes my research on accessibility. If you choose to ride along, seat belts, please.

Planes, trains, and automobiles – and ferries and buses and trams. And escalators. So many escalators. My stomach is roiling, still untrusting after a four-day trip to Hong Kong and Macau. Within 96 hours, I have “experienced” every named mode of transportation – some I experienced better than others. Trams were a breeze; I met my match in the Macau ferry.

The airport bus to the HK hostel was one of those double-decker affairs. Five minutes into the trip, I gripped the cloth seat and steeled my stomach for another mean curve around the mazed urban environment of Hong Kong. I half expected to see a small shrunken head issuing impossible orders from the front of the bus: “Yeah! Take it away Ernie! It’s gonna be a bumpy ride!”

The following morning was a blur of subways, escalators, and ferries. HK was in the middle of a rainy season, so traveling down narrow streets was complicated by popular rain dances like the puddle waltz and umbrella shuffle. The subway tunnels were a chorus of squeaking galoshes and frequent announcements to “mind the wet stairs.” The ferry to Macau looked harmless; it was this sleek red cruiser, generously stocked with Skymall (Ferrymall?) magazines and attended by smartly-dressed crew members. Then I saw the water. Churned by insistent storms, the water was choppy and unmerciful. From my queasy state of mind, the gurgling water beneath the boat sounded like mocking laughter.

Gratefully flopping onto the dock in Macau, Dorronda and I then took a comparatively gentle bus ride to the heart of Macau, where Portuguese met Cantonese and Lo met Google translate and delicious egg tarts. The cultural fusion was fascinating – Catholic churches squared up with dim sum restaurants, and street goers yelled out to bodega attendants, sometimes trying out several languages until arriving at one in which they could communicate effectively. On foot now, Dorronda and I climbed hilly streets in the humid rainforest environment, stumbling upon crumbling cathedrals and daring graffiti.

Following another unmentionable ferry trip back to HK, Dorronda and I took a tram to Victoria’s Peak – at times the tram angled at a more than 45-degree angle to reach the tip-top of Hong Kong. Although it was too foggy to get the full regal experience, it was still an amazing preview of the HK skyline. The descent from the Peak compensated for the limited views; the tram cut through heavy walls of fog, whistling down the dark mountain on rails slicked by days of rain. The storms followed me and Dorronda into the sky as we bounced across the turbulent south-east Asian clouds in a commercial airbus to return to Beijing.

I could say I’ve had my share of transportation hiccups. Just yesterday, my work elevator decided to suddenly drop an entire floor before it calmly chugged on. (It was the worst unsolicited theme park ride. I now practice self-preservation and take the stairs.)

I could never say nausea is a positive experience. The word “ferry” makes my stomach turn over. But, fighting nausea required extreme mental concentration, so here’s what I concentrated on while willing the seas of my stomach to calm:

Accessibility. I had run the gamut of transportation modes this week, so accessibility and transportation were natural subjects of my concentration. Although the summary of my interaction with transportation seems queasy and frustrated, it becomes unbalanced and inconsiderate when juxtaposed with the experience persons with disabilities have with the same modes of transportation.

If you were to flip through Mainland China’s laws and regulations, you would be blown away by the amount of regulations detailing transportation and accessibility for persons with disabilities – China has plentiful regulations on the books. But in my observations, the regulations haven’t materialized in the public. There is no application.

Here are some examples:

(1) Sidewalks: The sidewalks were one of the first differences I noticed in China. Most sidewalks are inlaid with a strip of textured tiles to assist blind persons navigating public streets. In this instance, it seems like there is proper application of an accessibility initiative. However, although the strips line sidewalks, this doesn’t prevent cars from parking over them, or for electrical poles to be placed directly in their path, or for a street vendor to set up shop overtop them. Many times, the strips will randomly disappear, or they won’t extend onto platforms at bus stops or hallways of subway stations. Additionally, few buildings or highway overpasses (the overpasses are sometimes the only way to get to the proper bus stop) have ramp access or automatic doorways, so wheelchair users often face multiple accessibility obstacles.

(2) Subways: The subway is one of the only modes of transportation marketed as handicap accessible. There are elevators in every station and open spaces in the subway designated for wheelchairs. But the vision of accessibility is incomplete. Although elevators will take passengers from one floor to another within the station, there are not always street elevators (or even escalators) to transport passengers from the outside to the ground floor of the station (which is usually two or three stories underground). Further, most people use the area marked “handicap reserved” to store their luggage or strollers while on the subway.

(3) Movie Theaters: Last weekend, I saw Despicable Me 3 (卑鄙的我3) with Peony, Dorronda, and another woman named Ting Ting. Ting Ting uses a wheelchair, and while searching for movie times, Peony and I made sure to pick a theater that advertised handicap accessible facilities. Despite the theater’s claims, we arrived at the theater only to learn there was no handicap seating or ramp into our theater. Instead, the “accessible” facility came in the form of a male staff member who proceeded to lift Ting Ting and her chair (without asking her permission) and precariously carry her down stairs to a row of seats. He attempted to squeeze her chair into a row of seats only to discover the chair didn’t fit. Instead, Ting Ting’s chair had to be stored at the top of the theater and she was forced to sit in a seat that made it difficult for her to see the entire screen.

(4) Bathrooms: When I first arrived in China, I dreaded the so-called “squatties.” Most Beijing restrooms are not raised on porcelain thrones. Instead, the toilets are set into the tiled floor and not raised in any way. There are usually two or three steps leading up to the stall. Of course, this is a difficult prospect for the wide-eyed Westerner, but it poses an even more difficult challenge for people in wheelchairs. While some buildings have separate, wheelchair accessible restrooms, others have a “handicap accessible” stall. These stalls usually have a  wider door, but they still feature the same two or three steps leading up to the stall with no further accommodations, and no handrail inside for stability and support. Even more, some buildings only have handicap accessible stalls on a choice few floors of the building (usually the top floor??).

(5) Public Awareness and Sensitivity: Collectively, there doesn’t seem to be as much public sensitivity or understanding of persons with disabilities in China. After our movie, Ting Ting pressed the button for an elevator to the parking garage and waited at the front of the line – when the elevator arrived, people pushed past her into the elevator and left no room for her to maneuver her chair into the small, crowded space. When I go out with Peony, I am nonplussed by the number of gawkers (young and old) who stop to stare at her. Much of this can be explained by religion or different cultural norms, but it still throws me when I encounter some form of public misunderstanding.

The tone of my post is critical, but I want to emphasize that China is still very much a developing country, especially when it comes to civil society. China therefore deserves a lot of recognition for its progress in human rights and disability legislation! In just a few decades following the Cultural Revolution, human rights and civil society in China have made leaps and bounds. While U.S. advocates urge for disability equality in the form of new regulations, Chinese advocates urge for enforcement – their regulations are well established. Because the regulations already exist, proper application is all that needs to be accomplished. China has created a legal foundation for disability equality, and it will continue to build on that foundation to create a more inclusive society. OPO is just one of many NGO construction crews helping to create inclusivity in China, and I have loved taking up the hammer to help the build.

See you next week with a blog post and not a novella. 再见.