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A traveller with disabilities takes on China

Washington Post

23rd July 2013

A traveller with disabilities takes on China

by Carol Zoom

The day was cold and rainy and, as it turned out, a Chinese national holiday. Which explained why the Great Wall was mobbed with Chinese tourists dressed in pastel-coloured plastic raincoats and toting jewel-toned umbrellas. From a distance, I thought, the Wall looked as if it was crawling with jelly beans.

It was quite a sight. But not, it turned out, one that could challenge the sight of me in Chinese eyes. As they pushed past me and my entourage — one friend carrying an umbrella over me, my electric scooter and my ventilator, and the other documenting every move with his camera — the tourists stopped to stare at me and my paraphernalia.

I felt as if I’d become the eighth wonder of the world as they ogled and pointed, and I told myself that it was my ravishing beauty that enthralled them. But of course I knew it wasn’t that.

I’ve used a wheelchair since age 13 because of congenital muscular dystrophy. Nevertheless, I’ve always been a traveller. Twelve years ago, I started using a ventilator full time. Though I’ve traveled internationally since then, traveling is now vastly more complicated, so I’ve stuck mostly to places that are considered fairly accessible, such as Spain, Holland and Argentina. But my true travel tastes tend to the more exotic and challenging, so earlier this year, when I booked a spring cruise ending in China, I decided to extend my trip and see what it would be like to travel as a person with severe disabilities in that Asian country.

Most of my friends cautioned me against an extended trip to China: There’s little information available on the Internet about travel by wheelchair, and because I don’t speak Chinese, many issues that might crop up would be far more difficult to resolve.

But I’d been to China once before, in 1988, as part of a Mobility International USA delegation to meet with leaders in the growing disability rights movement. Twenty-five years later, I would discover that although China has undergone enormous changes in accessibility, it still has a long way to go to be truly accessible to everyone. But it’s still more than worth the hassle.

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