My name is Zhang Jian. I have had five or six jobs before, and now I work at a travel agency. It is a social enterprise that uses commercial means to solve social issues. It is not entirely about maximizing profits but also does not rule out profits. I feel that my current life is like the life of ordinary people, but I am in a wheelchair. I can’t walk because of polio. I’ve had five surgeries, but haven’t recovered. I live in Guangzhou, work, and have my hobbies here.

What is a disability? For example, if you can’t swim, and you are suddenly thrown into a swimming pool, you are in a state of disability: you can’t swim.

While growing up, from primary school to university, I encountered great difficulties integrating into the society. I studied art for two years during high school, but I was rejected by some art academies because of physical reasons. Since 2012, I have been paying more attention to the issue of disability. I don’t agree that people with disabilities are a vulnerable group, because I think that many of the vulnerabilities are not innate: they are caused by acquired education or unequal opportunities. A person with disabilities who does not have equal access to education and therefore does not go to college, or drops out of school, will surely have a different starting point and future trajectory than a well-educated child. Education is not a decisive factor, but it is very important.

Sometimes I participate in marathons in my spare time. I register as usual on the official website. Through this kind of outdoor sports, you can complete the marathon (42.195 km) by wheelchair instead of running shoes. Through marathons, I can promote barrier-free access in public places.

I had several jobs before: I worked for five-star hotels and international brands, but I found that none of them provided me a reasonable and convenient working environment. For example, the guest area of the five-star hotel I worked for is barrier-free, but the staff area has obstacles. It’s very inconvenient for me to climb two staircases in order to go to the bathroom. The company could make some modifications to solve this problem, but after working there for seven years and not seeing any changes, I quit. I am currently working at “The Robins Accessible Travel Agency” because I agree with its vision and mission. The company provides me with a convenient work environment. For example, because I was using a wheelchair for a long time, my body was quite tired. So the company gave me another chair to move from the wheelchair to the comfortable backrest chair. When I’m moving, or when I’m going to eat, or going to the bathroom, I can sit in a wheelchair again. By providing better conditions for my work environment, I can work better!

Which challenges do you face?

There are not enough barrier-free public transportation facilities. Moreover, there is not enough public awareness. For example, someone working in the subway asked me: “Are you alone, sir? Are you going to squeeze into the subway at rush hour?” I replied: “I am going to work.” He asked: “Do you still need to go to work when you are in a wheelchair?” I think this ignorance is universal.

Sometimes able-bodied people without big luggage skip the queue when taking accessible elevators. When I am in the front they can move quickly and get in front of me. I think this is very bad. Even if there are people in front of me and they are young and healthy, I will choose to line up, because I think that all accessibility facilities are not only for disabled: it is a universal design. A lot of accessibility elevators are dedicated elevators, but in fact, this is problematic. No one is overseeing regulation. But when pregnant women, the elderly, or people in wheelchairs come along, you can give them priority to use it. You can also use accessibility elevators, but you have to queue up.

I have been to Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing several times. Shenzhen, Ningbo, and Xiamen give me a slightly better impression. The people there are more orderly in comparison. They seem more aware. Shenzhen is okay, but I found Guangzhou and Beijing very chaotic. In some foreign countries, you are not allowed to occupy the facilities for disabled people if you’re not disabled, even if there is no disabled person using it. For instance, in a foreign stadium, if a “for wheelchair” seat is empty and a photographer goes there for taking a picture, it will be despised and even punished. This kind of consciousness needs to be cultivated. Therefore, I believe that the backwardness in China is not only the lack of facilities but the lack of consciousness.

What can the society do to reduce those challenges?

This will not be an overnight change, as the Chinese saying goes, “it takes three generations to cultivate a nobleman.” However, I found that nowadays young people are more aware; they accept more diverse cultures, or they travel a lot, so they are more open-minded than before. I believe that society will become increasingly better, but the process will be very long. There is also a need for public education because frankly, most education is just spoon-feeding. Of course, some knowledge is certainly useful, but humanities education has been neglected. For example, many schools lack fire prevention, earthquake prevention, and sex education courses. Understanding of people with disabilities is also lacking. These shortcomings exist since my childhood, so this is not just about accessibility, it is a systematic social issue.

I came into contact with many autistic children, and in their schools all children are autistic. But in order to truly integrate those children, they need to attend a regular primary school with a special class for children who have some communication difficulties or problems with receiving information. The kids couldn’t keep up in a regular class, but if a school has such a class with all special children, then ordinary children have contact with special children throughout their school life. They would be aware from an early age, and there will be no discrimination or exclusion of these special children when they grow up. To create awareness, I think that this is needed. It’s not only important to get good grades in Math, English, and Chinese tests.

In the hotel I worked for, it would be very convenient for me if the two stairs are turned into slopes. My colleagues can use it as well, it’s convenient for them too. This is not a very complicated thing, but no one is willing to take care of it. What I’m talking about is empathy rather than sympathy. It’s easy for the people to walk one or two steps, but if you’re in a wheelchair, every step is the Great Wall.

As a disabled person, when you take the initiative to seek help, you really need a big breakthrough in your heart. And when others carry you, you will feel that you’re a burden. This psychological burden is very strong, so constructing more accessible ways means allowing disabled people to be elegant, independent, and freely access places without the need for others to help, so that they can build self-confidence and hope for a new life, to struggle or learn a skill, so as to be able to integrate in the society. Often we see only visible obstacles, but in fact, we should be more concerned about this inner obstacle. It is difficult to describe and difficult to detect, but it is the core.

Some of the disabled people I have contacted are not willing to go out. Some say they don’t want to go to a mall because they don’t have the facilities for accessibility. On the other hand, the mall owners see only very few people who have problems entering their mall, so they don’t want to fix it. This is a vicious circle, both sides can‘t see each other and they are reluctant to think and communicate with each other. In fact, if we understand that there are many people who would benefit from more accessibility, such groups will come over to the mall and consume. A shopping mall may have four or five entrances, not every entrance has to be barrier-free, if there’s just one it’s fine.

People with disabilities can improve their own lives, too. First of all, it is necessary to break through your psychological defense and accept your own incompleteness or loss of skills in some aspects. Then you can adapt better to the environment. For example, if you can’t see, you should adapt to live in the dark, to buy food and cook, or learn a skill, not just massage but also a stenographer, DJ or lawyer. I have a blind friend who works as a lawyer. He is the first blind lawyer in China. When you are disabled, you can actually do a lot of things, but the general assumption for centuries has been that you are a wreck if you lose one of your senses. People around you keep saying this, and you can get easily brainwashed by this, so you won’t try to go further than people say you can. Therefore, I think self-awareness is very important.

The second point is to work hard. There is no shortcut, everyone is the same. A non-disabled person also needs to work hard. No one can get opportunities and high salaries without any effort. You can’t be helped because your body is missing some features or because you’re defined as a vulnerable group. Opportunities are reserved for those who are prepared. We don’t work hard because we have hope, but we have hope because we work hard. But the process of hard work is very long and painful, so we have to be able to help ourselves and not rely on outside help. The outside can only play a guiding and inspiring role, so your own choices will really make the change.

There is a famous social enterprise in India, which is a bank for small loans. The bank gives loans to homeless people without interest. This allows them to learn a skill, to start a small business, or to go to a training class. Many homeless people have changed because of it. They have not only repaid the loan but also supported the bank to continue developing and to help more people. I think this is a very good thing because some people really need help in the beginning, but it is not a long-term unconditional help, because that will only cultivate laziness.

How can others understand people with disabilities better?

Understanding and empathy do not appear automatically in a short time. I have done some related work, so I have a certain say on this issue. Our so-called integrated education is actually companionship education, and our integrated tourism is companionship tourism. Non-disabled people and disabled people will have four or five days of short-distance travel or ten days of travel. Everyone will eat and have fun together. They all exchange worldviews, values and life habits. This creates a strong connection, it forms a strong social relationship. This process takes a while, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a big change in society, but this is the beginning. People will get some impression of each other, beyond traditional tourism: both parties learn to understand each other. Instead of just meeting someone on the street and exchanging a few words, you can actually tell what a person is like.

I think that people are good, and many misunderstandings and discriminations are caused by a lack of understanding. People are not born to discriminate against each other. My ideal world is a global village. Everyone lives under the same blue sky. The problems related to people with disabilities are improved and valued.