Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Handicapped Reporting: Are Foreign Enterprises any Less Accessible than Chinese Ones?

Wheelchair-bound Confucius with His Students
I’m certainly no fan of KFC and McDonalds. Their high-fat, high-sodium menus, whether consumed by Americans or Chinese, take years off of lives as they add inches to waistlines. However, while I don't approve of their food offerings, I am not above defending the Colonel and the Golden Arches from unfair criticism.

One such unmerited attack was featured in the August 18 edition of Caijing. Although I have a great deal of respect for Caijing – a paper that has built a reputation for pushing the limits of investigative reporting within China – I question the paper’s reporting of the findings of a study by the Beijing Yineng Yixing Handicapped Research Institute in addition to the nature of the study itself. (Note: I could not find an original copy of the institute’s report online, therefore, my interpretation of that report might be slightly colored by Caijing’s reporting.)

According to the study, KFC and McDonalds, both of which are required to provide handicapped-accessible facilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, are guilty of failing to respect the standards of Chinese laws for the accommodation of handicapped people. Of the 128 stores located in Beijing, over 90 percent have restrictions for the handicapped.

What sort of restrictions? Only 29 stores have ramps that allow wheelchairs to enter, while only 16 stores have ramps with platforms at the top that are roomy enough to allow a wheelchair-bound person to operate the door without backing onto the ramp. Additionally, almost half of the stores have thresholds that are over 1.9 centimeters high, making wheelchair access difficult. Furthermore, only 13 of the stores are one-story facilities. Of those that are not one-story, only 27 offer service on the ground level, and only six have elevators. These elevators either lack braille writing or they feature buttons that are too high for people in wheelchairs to reach.

Restrooms in the stores are also hard for handicapped people to use. In 80 stores, the path to the restroom is not handicapped-accessible, while the restrooms themselves have restrictions in 103 stores. The dining areas are also problematic. While most stores have tables that are high enough for wheelchairs, many of the tables to not have enough space for the knees.

These findings sound pretty damning. One might think that KFC and McDonalds are really dropping the ball in China, especially after reading Caijing’s introduction to the study at the top of the piece:

Although, in the US, the two big fast food chains must strictly follow laws requiring the provision of handicapped-accessible facilities, the environment for the handicapped that they provide to Chinese customers is a mess.
Caijing frankly tells us that the two chains treat American consumers and Chinese consumers differently – a claim that fits nicely into local stereotypes of multinationals as foreign predators seeking only profit as they exploit the Chinese masses.

This presentation is simply unfair. Anyone who is handicapped, or has had experience living or working with the handicapped, and has spent some time in China can recognize what an inhospitable environment the country as a whole presents to those with disabilities. Even Beijing, which hosted the Paralympics in 2008, is still a difficult place for the handicapped to navigate. This piece from the Washington Post, composed after the Paralympics prompted improvements to facilities in the capital, explains some of the problems that remain.

One of the main conclusions of the WaPo article is that enforcement of Chinese laws that protect the handicapped is spotty, while public awareness of the needs of handicapped people is low. Meanwhile, facilities are still lacking. For example, one blind interviewee says that sidewalks with raised tiles that have been installed throughout Beijing in order to guide the blind are of little use to him. As someone who has seen such tiles laid in irregular or broken formations in cities throughout China, I can personally understand his point.

Even if laws protecting the handicapped were strictly enforced, they might not be comprehensive. For example, the WaPo article also notes that, as of 2008, only six people and an arts association owned guide dogs in the whole country since no law allowed guide dogs to enter public places. In light of such facts, it is hard to imagine that the Beijing Yineng Yixing Handicapped Research Institute is justified in singling out two foreign-owned fast food chains for not installing braille writing in elevators, among other sins. Clearly the problem is China-wide and not limited to a few nefarious foreign enterprises.

In fairness, the institute does seem to understand the national nature of the problem. According to Caijing, the introduction of the institute’s report claims that KFC and McDonalds were chosen precisely because they are multinationals that strictly follow laws that require handicapped-accessibility in their home countries. The institute claims that these restaurants' ability to get away with different behavior in China demonstrates the failings of enforcement of Chinese laws for the handicapped. In other words, the institute doesn’t seem to place all of the blame on the shoulders of the two fast food chains.

However, I still see very little utility in singling out these two enterprises. KFC and McDonalds may be multinationals with headquarters in the US, but the store managers and staff members in China are local. Even the senior managers for China operations of the two chains are not American. KFC’s mother company, Yum brands, recruited a management team from Taiwan at the start of KFC’s entry into China in order to ensure that the company would be guided by those who were familiar with the Chinese cultural milieu. As for McDonalds, the current chief of its China operations is from Singapore. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the corporate culture of either company’s Asian operations would be more inclined to be handicapped friendly than that of any other Asian multinational, from China, Taiwan, Singapore or elsewhere.

The Beijing Yineng Yixing Handicapped Research Institute could have made its point just as easily by analyzing a cross section of enterprises, both foreign-owned and domestic, in China. And, it would have made its point without seeming to play to local stereotypes of foreign exploitation. As for Caijing, the paper might have recognized this failing from the start and acknowledged the flaws in the institute’s methodology. China’s handicapped deserve better than biased and limited reporting of the troubles they face.

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