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Para games inspire inclusivity push

BEIJING (ANN/CHINA DAILY) – In the evolving landscape of modern China, the concept of self-service has become an integral part of daily life, with 24-hour convenience stores catering to consumers’ needs.

Taking innovation a step further, Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in the eastern region, has introduced a ground-breaking self-service vending machine designed to meet the urgent requirements of individuals seeking rehabilitative and assistive equipment.

This pioneering initiative not only extends a helping hand to those with disabilities but also plays a pivotal role in fostering a more inclusive and barrier-free society.

Located on Cuiyuan Street, this remarkable vending machine is equipped with 12 compartments, each stocked with a range of essential devices, including wheelchairs, crutches, and walking frames, all available for short-term leasing.

“People can scan the QR code on the machine to register and check the device’s status — whether it has been rented or is still available — then borrow it after paying a deposit, ranging from CNY50 to CNY400 (USD7 to USD55) depending on the equipment,” said Qiu Ping, who is responsible for disabled people’s affairs at the Cuiyuan subdistrict administrative office.

“Borrowers are allowed to use the device free of charge for a maximum of three months, then they receive messages reminding them to return it. Their deposit will not be refunded if the equipment is not returned at the correct time.”

Qiu said the machine was put into use in August, and so far about 140 items have been borrowed and returned.

The move is an example of Hangzhou’s efforts in recent years to promote and optimise a barrier-free environment as authorities worked to assist disabled competitors in the 4th Asian Para Games and also people living in or visiting the city.

A woman returns a wheelchair to a self-service vending machine that provides rehabilitative equipment in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. PHOTO: ANN/CHINA DAILY

Touching, inspiring

Having opened on October 22, the weeklong games ended in Hangzhou on Saturday. They were seen as a “touching and inspiring” event because of the performances of the competitors and the excellent barrier-free services provided by staff members and volunteers, said Chen Weiqiang, Hangzhou Asian Para Games chief spokesperson, at a recent news briefing.

“Hangzhou spent five years preparing for the games and made thorough plans for transportation, accommodations and medical services for competitors and their escorts,” he said.

As of Friday, the city had offered arrival and departure services to 7,624 people involved in the games, while the number of people who used the athletes’ village peaked at 5,002 on October 23, the first competitive day.

According to the organisers, the village offered about 1,100 barrier-free beds and had dedicated dining areas for wheelchair users. Barrier-free services, such as wheelchair-charging poles and maintenance for assistive devices, were also available in the facility.

The 29 event-designated hotels in Hangzhou’s downtown also optimised their barrier-free facilities and services. For example, the Hangzhou Grand Metropark Hotel transformed about 20 rooms into barrier-free zones, with bed heights lowered to 40 centimetres to allow wheelchair users to move themselves on and off the mattresses.

In 2020, Hangzhou published a three-year action plan for the promotion of a barrier-free environment. The aim was to make the city a state-of-the-art zone with sound facilities, standards and shared information to embrace the games by last year, the original scheduled date for the event, before it was delayed because of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Under the plan, city-level regulations on the construction and management of barrier-free facilities were revised. Meanwhile, plans were drawn up for a barrier-free environment in accordance with international experience to provide more legislative and policy-related support for the work.

In addition to infrastructure facilities, the plan focused on the optimisation of online barrier-free services — for example, adding sign language interpretation to television programs and transforming life-services platforms, such as e-mapping and e-commerce, via disabled-friendly functions.

According to Pan Yan, director of the Jiashanlu Street Committee, from March onward, the body spent nearly CNY50,000 to optimise the related environment at its community services centre, including wheelchair ramps, barrier-free restrooms and assistive devices.

“Our community has 13 residential clusters of 5,000 households, and about 90 residents have physical or mental disabilities. The barrier-free facilities are open to everyone, not just local residents,” she said.

“I’ve worked in the community for 20 years, and I feel the public has drawn more attention to the care of disabled people and helped create a friendlier environment for them.”


High-tech services

Wang Yuhuan, deputy director of the office of Hangzhou’s barrier-free construction leading team, said: “A city’s ‘warmth’ depends on its attitude to people who might be ignored (because of a disability). Building a barrier-free environment facilitates the work and lives of such people and also seniors, boosting their sense of happiness and safety. Thus, it builds a more convenient, healthier and liveable place with diversity and inclusiveness.”

According to the office of the leading team, recently Hangzhou has worked closely with the mapping company Amap to develop a function for “wheelchair navigation.”

In November last year, it was one of three cities to pioneer its operation, together with Beijing and Shanghai.

By turning the regular navigation mode into a barrier-free one via Amap, users can find routes with barrier-free, wheelchair-accessible facilities, including during metro journeys. The routes also avoid underpasses and footbridges that are inaccessible to wheelchair users.

“It was initially because of the preparatory work for the Para Games. We thought we could mark places on the map that disabled people might want to visit, thereby facilitating their activities,” said Zhong Zheng, an official from the office of the leading team.

“Then, we discovered that it was difficult for wheelchair users to find metro exits with vertical elevators due to a lack of signage to barrier-free facilities.”

She added that the working team contacted Amap in May last year after completing a thorough survey of Hangzhou’s metro stations.

“It was an exploratory step for both of us: the mapping company had concerns about marking barrier-free facilities on the map without disturbing regular users. We also consulted legal departments to ensure that the cooperation was open and transparent. We are a bridge, delivering disabled people’s experiences and problems to the mapping company to bring better results,” she said.

Zhong added that the function has not only been welcomed by people with disabilities, but also by seniors, women with baby strollers and people with large, heavy luggage.

Ma Zhichao, another official with the office, said that applying technology to the construction of a barrier-free environment provides everyone, not just disabled people, with easier and convenient access to assistive services.

In addition to barrier-free navigation services, Hangzhou cooperated with tech giant Alibaba to develop a sign language interpretation program — the artificial intelligence-based “Xiaomo” — which has learned more than 30,000 sign language gestures after being put into use in April.


Legal, policy support

Wang Yuhuan, deputy director of the office of the barrier-free construction leading team, said these technology-based services are not just available to people in Hangzhou, but nationwide, and the results can greatly push forward the realisation of common prosperity.

“These services and facilities encourage disadvantaged people — including those with disabilities, seniors, children and pregnant women — to step out of their homes, get involved in the community and make a contribution to creating a barrier-free society. They will be happy and mentally enriched after expanding their circle of friends,” he said.

The Hangzhou government said the city has 140,000 barrier-free facilities in hotel rooms, metro stations and some key public service areas. Moreover, 15,000 families in the city with members who are disabled and in poor financial condition have received assistance in installing barrier-free facilities.

The Hangzhou games epitomised China’s efforts and progress in respecting disabled people and developing courses for such athletes in recent years, experts said.

Majid Rashed, president of the Asian Paralympic Committee, commended the city’s efforts to improve the barrier-free environment to help competitors and disabled people.

He told a recent news briefing that Hangzhou took the 4th Asian Para Games as an opportunity to optimise barrier-free facilities, and the changes will be beneficial to the city and all its people.

To better facilitate the disabled and people in need of barrier-free services, governments at all levels nationwide have taken exploratory measures to promote legislative work on construction of such an environment. On Sept 1, China’s first barrier-free environment construction law took effect, ensuring that the work has a sound legal basis.

Lyu Shiming, vice-chairman of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, told a recent conference in Wuhan, Hubei province, that the law’s launch was a landmark accomplishment and of great importance to the nation’s 85 million disabled people and 280 million seniors age 60 and older.

He said it will improve the construction quality of a barrier-free environment and living standards. It is also a positive response to China’s aging society as it offers solid support for the disabled and seniors, plus fairer, adequate and easier engagement in social activities.