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24 Mar, 2012

Forbidden No More: Disabled Chinese Youth Transform Forbidden City into City for All


Beijing – A small group of disabled young people in China have made history by using social media to make parts of the ancient Forbidden City of Beijing accessible to people with disabilities for the first time.

Congcong Guo is a member of Young Voices China, a global advocacy campaign hosted by Leonard Cheshire Disability: “Like elsewhere in the world, people with disabilities in China are made to feel like a public inconvenience. Just going to the market or the shops can be difficult.”

Improving accessibility is a core part of the Young Voices. Public transport and buildings across China are often poorly designed for people with physical disabilities, hindering every day movement around the country. But it wasn’t until one meeting when a member suggested making the Forbidden City accessible that they were struck by the fact that the 83 million disabled people in China, and all international visitors with disabilities, were missing out on one of China’s most important legacies.

The city is made up of a series of interconnected rooms, many with high thresholds which make wheelchair access impossible. The whole infrastructure is old and uneven, making movement around the city difficult.

During the Paralympics in Beijing, some provisions were made to make the famous site more accessible for tourists with disabilities. But the adaptations were seen as a temporary measure. The ambitions of the Young Voices to keep the adaptations were up against the strict rules of the administration, charged with conserving the character of the 15th century World Heritage Site.

The Young Voices used social media sites such as QQ to highlight the accessibility issues to the site. As a result, over 50 people with disabilities went on a group site-seeing trip to the Forbidden City. As they struggled to help the wheelchair users and people with sensory difficulties, the staff working at the site were faced with the reality of how many barriers there were. The staff passed on that message to the senior management who agreed to reinstall and develop the accessibility including ramps and lifts.

There is still a way to go. While there are now more provisions for accessibility, the administration often closes these accessible routes to the public, opening them only when there is a high profile visit. The Young Voices are committed to pushing for full, public access to the site for all.

Not satisfied with conquering the Forbidden City, the Young Voices are also working with the China Disabled Person Federation to tackle accessibility issues at the Great Wall of China, one step at a time.

Congcong said: “Sites like the Forbidden City are of great national and international importance. Everyone has the right to enjoy such beauty. The City is a historic building but now it is also a building of the future.”

Congcong is one of 21 disabled young campaigners who joined people from across the disability and development fields to discuss Disability-Inclusive Millennium Development Goals and Aid Effectiveness as part of a conference organised by Leonard Cheshire Disability and the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand from 14-16 March.