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Specialized travel tours offered for visually impaired

2024-05-21 10:21:29Source: China DailyAuthor: Li Lei
Shenyang elderly care center fulfilling more than just basic needs for people with disabilities
A visually impaired tourist feels a sculpture with the help of a volunteer at Lu Xun Park in Shanghai in October 2020. YANG JIANZHENG/FOR CHINA DAILY
May 21, 2024 -- The concept of travel and experiencing new places is often neglected when it comes to the visually impaired, but a kindhearted organization from Shenyang in Liaoning province is doing just that — organizing holidays for the blind and partially sighted.
On a dry January day in Bangkok, a group of 19 Chinese tourists, most of whom were blind, were led by guides through the bustling streets of the Thai capital.
The guides described the scenes around them, made sure they were safe and enabled them to take in the exotic sounds, smells and tastes.
Zhang Yu is the director of Haiman Smart Eldercare Center, which organized the tour in partnership with the China Foundation for Disabled Persons.
The altruistic 43-year-old developed an interest in the plight of the blind and partially sighted community in 2017, after a close friend's accident that resulted in blindness, and her subsequent struggle to come to terms with it.
China has 17.3 million blind or visually impaired people, and a growing number of them are venturing out to travel as their incomes improve and barrier-free accessibility in public spaces continues to grow, according to Zhang.
She said a whole market for nonprofits and commercial travel agencies has sprung up, and travel products are being rolled out to meet the needs of the blind and partially sighted.
As a longtime volunteer, Zhang has learned the challenges faced by those with visual disabilities, especially the elderly.
Many standard nursing homes don't accept blind residents, and even if they do, the costs are prohibitive and blind residents are often confined to solitary rooms for safety reasons.
This prompted Zhang and others to establish an elderly care service for the blind in 2019. In its short history, Haiman Smart Eldercare Center has expanded to provide care for 40 people with visual impairment, and it has even started organizing group tours.
"Blind people have a strong desire to travel," she said, adding that most mainstream tour groups do not accept those with visual impairment, or if they do they charge as much as twice the normal price.
In some of China's wealthier coastal regions, there have been charity programs that pair blind travelers with sighted ones. The blind travelers pay half of the sighted companions' expenses in exchange for free guiding services. While being much cheaper, the itineraries are still not tailored to the specific needs of blind travelers.
This is where Haiman has stepped in. It designs its trips based on blind people's interests, with each guide shared by two blind travelers, resulting in a travel cost only a third more expensive than the standard cost.
Starting in the suburbs of Shenyang and neighboring provinces, Haiman has expanded its footprint as far as Hainan, an island province thousands of kilometers away.
Encouraged by their early success in domestic travel, Zhang proposed a trip to Thailand.
Although the journey went smoothly overall, there were some challenges, particularly during their visit to the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, where they had to board a narrow canoe.
The boat had no steps, so each person first had to step onto a wobbly stool about 80 centimeters tall, and climb another 80-centimeter gap to reach the boat. Zhang felt nervous while assisting the blind travelers. Since blind individuals rely on their hearing, they can get confused when too many people talk at once. Instead, guides tapped their legs to signal which one to lift.
Eventually, everyone managed to board the boat safely.
Some visually impaired people, along with volunteers from the charity group Huoshen Nuanxin, tour Lu Xun Park in Shanghai in October 2020. YANG JIANZHENG/FOR CHINA DAILY
Eye injury
Among those on the trip to Thailand was 53-year-old Tang Xiantao.
As Tang is not fully blind — he can discern rough outlines and colors — he was able to chip in and sometimes help the guides during their tour.
While usually one guide was assigned to every two visitors, one volunteer ended up overseeing four people one day. "The guide led the way, with the blind travelers following behind in a slow-moving 'train', their hands resting on each other's shoulders," Tang recalled.
He invited two blind companions to lean on him as the group cautiously navigated a bustling Bangkok street. "I wasn't certain how the locals viewed us, but we must have appeared somewhat peculiar to them."
Tang's life took a drastic turn in 2013 after a car accident left him visually impaired, forcing him to quit his well-paid job at a tech company in Beijing. For five years, he stayed primarily at home while seeking various treatments, only to realize his eyesight wouldn't return.
After the eye injury, everything felt unfamiliar. "I used to drive perfectly, but then suddenly I feared even walking," he said.
During one rare outing to a park in Beijing with his wife and daughter, Tang almost drowned. While his sighted companions climbed rocks next to a pond, Tang opted to stay below. However, the blending hues of the water and ground caused a disorienting effect, and he tumbled into the pond.
This added to a growing fear of venturing outdoors, which gradually took a toll on his health, causing significant weight gain.
A change came in 2019 when Tang's pride was stung by his young daughter's innocent query: "Why doesn't papa need to go to work?"
"I didn't want her to think less of me or be negatively impacted by my situation," he said. The father then embarked on a journey of self-improvement. He started running at the Olympic Forest Park, a habit he continues today. He also started writing and offering voluntary services for the blind. As a result, he shed 25 kilograms and has become more receptive to outings and social engagements.
He traveled to Tianjin and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and even to Russia on family vacations — all accompanied by his wife. But he'd never traveled without her after his injury. That is, until the trip to Thailand with Haiman Smart Eldercare Center.
Various fruits are served to visually impaired people participating in a tour of Bangkok, Thailand, in January. CHINA DAILY
Guide Nie Zhongyuan was assigned the additional task of documenting the entire trip to Thailand to capture memories and for marketing purposes. He arrived in Bangkok a day ahead, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the blind tourists flying in from various parts of China.
"The wait was excruciating, and I was consumed with worry about the potential challenges our blind friends might encounter during the journey, especially considering the significant temperature difference between China and Thailand," he said.
To Nie's surprise, upon the arrival of the first group at the hotel, they immediately began sharing jokes, lifting everyone's spirits.
Nie quickly formed a strong bond with Tian Zheng, a blind massage therapist from Tianjin, feeling a deep connection as if they had known each other for years.
Throughout their travels, the group explored attractions like the Golden Buddha at Wat Pho along the Chao Phraya River, the majestic Grand Palace, and Pattaya Beach. Despite the guides' efforts to describe the sights to the blind visitors, they encountered some language limitations.
"However, our blind friends were filled with joy," Nie recalled.
Both locals and foreign visitors generously offered assistance, guidance, photo opportunities and engaged in conversations about the living conditions of disabled individuals in China.
"I felt a sense of genuine pride, realizing that many of our initial concerns were unfounded," he said.
The majority of the visually impaired on the tour were massage therapists, a prevalent occupation for the blind in China. Over the years, the China Association of Persons with Visual Disabilities and authorities have worked to establish a thriving industry for vision-impaired individuals through vocational training and financial aid, particularly in the field of massage.
Unlike many disabled communities worldwide who depend on state benefits, blind individuals in China earn their livelihood through their own skills, Nie stressed.
Massage has been instrumental in helping numerous blind individuals break free from poverty and attain greater social recognition.
"Traveling is a desire they harbor but find challenging to realize given the numerous obstacles they encounter in transportation and communication," Nie added.
Tian Zheng, the massage therapist, was born with glaucoma. Over time, he gradually lost his sight and eventually became fully blind.
Like many visually impaired people, Tian was educated in special schools to learn massage techniques and later pursued higher education in traditional Chinese medicine.
After graduating in 2002, he established himself as a professional therapist in his hometown. At 45 years old, Tian remains unmarried and lives with his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.
Having previously traveled with Haiman to Hainan and being satisfied with the service, Tian decided to join the trip to Thailand. To make the journey possible, he sought assistance from his sister to care for their mother and paid 5,000 yuan for the trip, during which he got to experience Thai massage.
"It was a reasonable price," he said. "I believe I deserve this vacation to treat myself."
Yan Zhongqian contributed to this story.