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A Wheelchair User’s Guide to Visiting Accessible Shanghai, China

Shanghai is a renowned international metropolis drawing more and more attention from all over the world. Situated on the estuary of Yangtze River on the east coast, it serves as the most influential economic, financial, international trade, and cultural center in East China. Also it is a popular travel destination for visitors to sense the pulsating development of the country. Visiting as a wheelchair user is easier than you might think, as accessibility is better in Shanghai than most of China. However, there are several things you need to know about and prepare for before your visit.

Arriving in Shanghai

If you’re an American citizen, you will need a visa to visit China. You should apply for your visa at least a month prior to your departure date. You either have to apply in person at a Chinese Embassy or Consulate General, or use a visa service close to you. For more information about the application requirements, CLICK HERE.

International visitors fly into the Shanghai Pudong International airport, which is located about a 45-minute drive from downtown Shanghai. The airport is very modern and is fully accessible with regards to bathrooms, shops, and restaurants. They also have standard manual wheelchairs available for assistance. However, the airport does not have its own aisle chairs to board or deplane wheelchair users. If you cannot walk on/off the plane independently, you are expected to use the airplane’s on-board aisle chair with assistance from the flight crew. These chairs are often flimsy, always small, and sometimes have no straps. I am 5’6″ tall and weigh 115 pounds, and I find these chairs tiny and uncomfortable. If you are unable to use an on-board aisle chair for whatever reason, there’s a good chance you will not be able to board or deplane in Shanghai, so please keep this in mind.

If you are flying to Shanghai from the US, your wheelchair is supposed to be brought to the door of the plane in compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act. Mine was not, and was sent instead to baggage claim. If this happens to you, don’t fight it. This is China, and what the local government says, goes. Even the flight crew isn’t allowed access to the ramp to check on cargo (i.e. the whereabouts of your chair). After deplaning, you will be escorted by an airport representative through immigration and customs, and they will also help you retrieve any checked bags.

If you are traveling in a power wheelchair and require accessible transportation, your only options will be to take the Maglev high-speed train or the Shanghai metro. The Maglev costs 50 yuan (about US$7) and in only 7 minutes will take you directly to the Longyang Rd. metro stop, where you can connect to lines 2, 7, and 16. You can also take metro line 2 from the airport to anywhere in Shanghai (downtown is about a 50-minute ride). There are no accessible taxis in Shanghai.

Where to Stay in Shanghai

There are numerous Western chain hotels in Shanghai, so when looking for accessible accommodations, I would start there. That being said, that’s still no guarantee that you will be able to stay comfortably in a room. I would highly recommend emailing your hotel (the language barrier in Shanghai is very real, as few people speak fluent English) and ask for room/bathroom photos before making a reservation.

As far as choosing a location, this can be tough because Shanghai is huge. However, based on my experience, I would highly recommend choosing a hotel on the Puxi side of the river near People’s Square. This puts you close to a metro station with connectivity to three lines, the Nanjing Road pedestrian area (a straight shot to The Bund), and several accessible local sights.

Getting Around Shanghai

Traffic in Shanghai is a nightmare, and although manual wheelchair users may have the ability to use taxis, I would avoid it. Plus, the metro system is so accessible and efficient that taxis aren’t really necessary. As I mentioned earlier, there are no wheelchair accessible taxis in Shanghai, and the buses are also not accessible.

Using the metro is relatively easy, and the platforms and cars themselves are very accessible (no ramp needed). By far the most challenging part is locating street-level elevators for each station, as they are not clearly marked. I would highly suggest using one station as your “home base” so you always know how to get in. Elevators within the stations are much easier to find, as signs in English are prevalent. You can also follow the “braille trails” on the ground for the blind, as the raised paths often lead to elevators. You will find that several external elevators are locked because they usually bypass security and ticket gates. There is a call button at every elevator, and you just push it and say “I need the elevator” when someone answers. While most stations have elevators to/from the street level, not all of them do (as I learned the hard way at the China Art Museum station on line 8). I’m working on finding a list of stations that have elevators to street level.

Buying metro cards is easy, as there are touch-screen kiosks at every station entry. Just touch the “English” button on the top right, select the line for your destination, then your final station. You will then be asked to insert money for the fare (cash only). Because the elevators bypass security and most ticket gates, you may never use a metro card. However, since every station is different, I would carry a card with at least 6 yuan loaded just in case you need it to exit.

Most metro employees do not speak English. If you need help finding an elevator or bathroom, I would highly recommend either learning how to say these words in Mandarin, or better yet, have a screenshot of these words in Mandarin or a photo of an elevator or toilet on your phone to show them.

Things to See and Do

Fortunately for wheelchair users, most of Shanghai’s commonly visited attractions are wheelchair accessible. This includes observation decks at some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, parks, museums, the aquarium, and the zoo. For a list and detailed descriptions of over a dozen wheelchair accessible things to do in Shanghai, please CLICK HERE (coming soon!).

Exploring Shanghai on Wheels

Most of downtown Shanghai is less than 30 years old. Partly as a result of this modernity, sidewalks and streets in central Shanghai are in really good condition. Every intersection I came across had great curb drops, and I never had to turn around to find a different spot to cross the street. Most sidewalks are very smooth, with some that have only slightly bumpy brick pavers. There are raised paths for the blind absolutely everywhere, and these can be helpful for wheelchair users as well since they often lead to elevators or crosswalks.

While it is extremely easy to get around Shanghai in a wheelchair, it is considerably more challenging getting into places, specifically stores and restaurants. You will be hard-pressed to find accessible places to eat or shop, even along the Nanjing Road pedestrian area. I ate most of my meals in my hotel, and you’ll have better luck inside a mall, at a museum cafe, or near the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong.

One thing you really need to be aware of is the people around you. You will not be given any deference or personal space as a wheelchair user. Few people will let you go first or give you space to enter or proceed. People will cut in front of you and bump you with no apology. You will eventually run over people’s feet and you will run into them because Shanghai is just a very crowded place with no social norms for personal room. You need to be very assertive when you need some space (e.g. to enter or exit a metro train), and to express your displeasure if someone cuts you in line. The good thing is that the Chinese are vocal about expressing displeasure with each other, so they won’t be offended once they understand what your needs are. It’s hard to believe, but the Chinese in Shanghai are buried into their cellphones even more than Americans – even while walking. They can usually see you with their peripheral vision since they’re looking down anyway, but be prepared to alert people to your presence on a regular basis.

Plan on Saying Cheese a LOT

You will see many fellow wheelchair users in Shanghai. However, they are all elderly and all use manual wheelchairs. During my week-long stay, I did not see anyone under the age of 70 in a wheelchair, and definitely no electric scooters or power wheelchairs. Those are just not available here, so you can imagine what a source of fascination I was as a young(ish) woman traveling alone in my space-age-looking Whill Model Ci. I was either asked to have my photo taken or surreptitiously photographed at least a dozen times, and even more people stopped my tour guide to ask her (to ask me in English) where I bought my chair and how much it cost.

Generally speaking, being a wheelchair user in China is a mixed bag. Many Chinese believe that being disabled is a punishment for something bad you did in a previous life. Others believe a person’s disability is a source of shame to the family, so unless you’re in a wheelchair as a result of being old (i.e. respected), you’re to be hidden away from the public. Even if none of the above applies, you will still be an object of curiosity, and staring (and pointing) is not considered rude here. Expect it. Every time I saw someone staring at me (usually men looking at my chair), I always smiled and waved while cheerfully saying, Ni hao! (hello). They always smiled and waved back, and the barrier would be broken.

Money, Outlets, and Miscellaneous Things

The currency in Shanghai is the RMB, also known as the yuan. The current exchange rate is roughly 14 US cents for 1 yuan. Bring cash with you from home if you can order it from your bank, or draw cash from an ATM in Shanghai, as most retail places don’t accept US credit cards (you’ll be fine at a Western hotel). Prices for things vary from extremely cheap (street souvenirs, local food) to expensive (brand name items, hotel food). Admission to local museums and other attractions tends to be free or cheap. The aquarium was approximately (USD equivalent) $6, the zoo was $4, and the Shanghai Museum was free. Disneyland was $60 for the day (compared to $139 in the US, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower was $24, and Shanghai Tower was $27. A value meal at McDonald’s will run about $5.

Electrical current in Shanghai is 220-240V, and outlets are different than other parts of the world. Your universal adapter may not have the right prongs for China (mine didn’t), although my hotel room had both Chinese outlets and European outlets. For more information about batteries and electricity abroad for your mobility devices, CLICK HERE.

Very little English is spoken in Shanghai because there’s not much of a need for it. The majority of tourists are from other parts of China; I saw fewer than a dozen Westerners during my week-long stay. Have cards or a paper or screen shots prepared with Mandarin translations for important words you might need (your hotel name and address, elevator, bathroom, exit/entrance, help, etc.). Remember to say Ni hao (knee how), or hello, often to break barriers (little kids LOVE it when you say hi to them), and xié xié (sheh sheh) to say thank you.

As a wheelchair user, it’s often difficult to do anything with two hands. In Shanghai, you will always be handed everything or have things taken when offered with two hands. Return the gesture whenever possible.

As you look around Shanghai and see all the modern skyscrapers, high-end stores, and fast food restaurants, it can be hard to remember that you’re in a communist country. The police and surveillance cameras are everywhere, and everyone is easy to see and find. This is not the place to do something crazy or to make a statement. If anyone who looks even remotely official tells you you can’t go somewhere or see or do something, don’t argue. I didn’t try to photograph any government buildings (they’re ugly anyway) or police out of an abundance of caution.

Many Shanghai residents look very serious; older people rarely smile in photos. However, when greeted or approached, they were always very friendly and helpful. Despite the serious language barrier, employees in the metro stations and at tourist attractions did everything they could to help me if I needed it. Watching and interacting with the locals was half the fun of this trip, and I hope you will do this during your visit as well.

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