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BEIJING — How many disabled people are there in China? The number is 85 million, or 6% of China's total population, according to the statistics of the Chinese Disabled Persons' Federation. Yet rarely do we see any of them in China's major cities. So where are they?

Recently, a video from the southwestern city of Chongqing triggered a huge wave of public outrage: it showed the city's law enforcement removing a disabled man from the street for performing the Erhu, a traditional bowed two-stringed musical instrument. The law enforcement agents reported that his presence "affects the street's image" because it's a popular zone for both public officials and foreign tourists.

This is not exactly a mistake. What the agent on the scene reported were words that reflect that the government's mindset and its definition of beauty for China's municipalities. Broad and neat streets, magnificent and orderly shop fronts and smartly dressed citizens are what a "presentable" city looks like, and what ought to be shown to governmental officials and foreigners.

The rough-around-the-edges street scenes and not-exactly presentable people are to be hidden at least, if not to be made disappeared, so they are never to be seen again. As such, certain cities come up with ideas such as hiding out of sight an entire block of imperfect street shops by building a long gray wall to block the view. Never mind that what matters most for these shops to thrive is the visibility that attracts passersby.

And, now the same logic is applied to disabled and disadvantaged people. Those performing on the streets damage the "face" of a city, and are forbidden in the most prosperous part of town — and should be pushed to an unnoticed corner.

Let's encourage them to appear on the streets and to be included in the society.

Not only is such urban governance philosophy hostile to disabled persons making a living as a street artist, it also means the bad design, if not totally lack at all, of barrier-free accessibility for these people. As shown by a 2017 study conducted by the China Consumers Association and China Disabled Persons' Federation, China's overall penetration rate of barrier-free facilities exceeded only over 40%. On top of the insufficiency, very often the barrier-free access is shuttered, occupied, rundown or badly designed.

Take the path destined for the visually impaired as an example. Though they are common in cities now, many are virtually useless because they are all blocked by bicycles. Moreover, in order to make it more aesthetically pleasing and to avoid juxtaposing with the road signs paved with colored tiles, these paths turn and twist, or are often one to two meters away from the zebra crossing. In other words, the consideration of so-called urban beauty is beyond the interests of the blind.

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A survivor of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake is helped by his mother in China's Sichuan Province Photo: Zhang Fan

Again, neither Braille display nor audio guidance exist at bus stops. And rare is the accessible low-steps for getting on a bus. All this hinders people with disabilities from traveling.

Last year, Wen Jun, who is paraplegic and active in charity work, lost his life due to inaccessibility. When visiting Dali City, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, Wen was blocked at the barrier-free access which has been occupied. As he tried to turn his wheelchair around and look for another way, he fell into the roof of a parking lot from a height of more than two meters. He died at the age of 47.

"Better city, better life..." – this was a slogan when Shanghai held the World Expo in 2010, and since shared by so many other Chinese cities. This we should assume applies to everybody, including the poorest of society, and also disabled people. To see their existence, to stretch out one's hands to their struggle, to try our best in providing the conditions to encourage them to appear on the streets and to be included in the society, ought to be more rooted in people's hearts. Or put another way: A city that can see the weak will never lose its value.


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