Since November 2015, Duan Hongbo has been collaborating with other associations working with people with disabilities in Gansu Province and Beijing, China to spark concrete changes to benefit all people living with disabilities.
Duan Hongbo was on his way home from Bangkok when he stopped for a connecting flight in Chengdu, China. His first leg, three hours on China Eastern Airlines, had been pleasant enough. After three days at Asia Catalyst’s CBO Catalyst workshop, he was ready to return to the northwestern city of Baiyin, China. His journey was cut short, however, when China Eastern Airlines refused to admit Duan, who has a visual impairment, for being “unaccompanied.”
This is discriminatory and violates Duan Hongbo’s protected rights. Armed with skills and knowledge learned in the CBO Catalyst program, Duan immediately began conducting advocacy for his rights.
Marooned in a new city, Asia Catalyst helped Duan contact a 2013 CBO Catalyst graduate who lived in Chengdu. Together, the activists alerted local media using Cheng’s existing contacts and began to raise public awareness on the incident.
“This was very unexpected,” said Duan, “I applied what I learned from Asia Catalyst’s workshop so immediately, and it turned out to be highly effective for my case!”
As a result of their quick action, China Eastern Airlines awarded Duan a free flight and complimentary accommodations. The airline’s management made apologies to the Duan, admitting wrongdoing. Privately, the airline also promised Duan that it would change its discriminatory policy to protect the rights of people with disabilities. “This was very unexpected,” said Duan, “I applied what I learned from Asia Catalyst’s workshop so immediately, and it turned out to be highly effective for my case!”
Duan decided his next step was to conduct a broader advocacy campaign aiming to eliminate all regulations against people with disabilities’ legal rights of flying independently with Chinese airlines. As he put it, “this is a type of discrimination and my experience was not an isolated incident.”
What followed was akin to a game of strategic cat and mouse. In the month after the incident, Duan and his peers at the CBO Baiyin Handicap Association prepared a lawsuit against their airlines. A month later, members of China Eastern
Airline’s management team visited Duan at his home in Baiyin to negotiate. “I raised my expectations to them that they need to change their existing regulations and conduct staff trainings on the rights of people with disabilities”, said Duan, “The airline gave me the commitment that they would work to meet my expectations.” When the airline failed to implement changes, however, Duan commenced filing the lawsuit. As soon as this was in motion, however, the airline immediately began taking action to fulfill Duan’s demands.
Now on China Eastern Airline’s website and app, there is an updated regulation on the rights of people living with disabilities. According to Duan, “Ultimately, the aim is to evoke concrete changes. As long as the changes are happening, it doesn’t matter whether I file the lawsuit or not.”
To amplify impact, Duan and his group of community activists then focused on staff trainings for China Eastern Airlines. In collaboration with the group One Plus One, Baiyin Handicap Association conducted trainings for 96 staff members on Understanding Disabilities in the Social Model Context. The two groups, in collaboration with the rare-disease organization, China Doll, also held a seminar in Beijing, Barriers Faced by The Disabled in Taking Flights, subsequently submitting a report to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
This persistent joint effort initiated by Duan and his peers, with support from Asia Catalyst, witnessed a monumental victory in March 2016. The China Civil Aviation Transportation Bureau published an announcement titled Further Improving Air Transportation Services for Special Populations. In the announcement, the Bureau issues requirements for administrations, airlines, airports and air control bureaus of all levels to “strictly implement existing regulations on protecting the rights of people with disabilities in air transportation settings.” The Bureau also demands that airlines and airports amend their disability-related service guidelines; conduct staff trainings to raise awareness on the rights and needs of people with disabilities; and improve infrastructure for the convenience of people with disabilities across the nation.
“I was not clear about advocacy before participating Asia Catalyst’s training,” said Duan, “I thought advocacy equaled communication. Now I can view advocacy from a more strategic perspective.”
“I was not clear about advocacy before participating Asia Catalyst’s training,” said Duan, “I thought advocacy equaled communication. Now I can view advocacy from a more strategic perspective.” Ultimately, Duan aims to expand this advocacy strategy to impact other service providers and aviation related departments. As he puts it, “We need to find the right timing to do the same advocacy for other airlines—because usually it’s more effective when there is a similar incident as a starting point.”
Asia Catalyst continues to work hand in hand with Duan as he and his community take on discrimination against people with disabilities in accessing flights. Duan’s vision for a successful campaign? He aims to help create a China where “there is no distinction between people with disabilities and without disabilities. “Through policy change and shifts in public attitude,” he says, “we can guarantee an equal and dignified life for people living with disabilities, just the same as for everybody else in society.”