In 2011 the World Health Organization and the World Bank (2011) jointly released the World Report on Disability for the first time, pointing out that around 15% of the world’s population lived with some form of disability, totaling more than one billion people. According to China’s national census and sample survey data, persons with disabilities in China totalled about 85.02 million at the end of 2010 (CDPF, 2012), and the population aged 60 and above stood at around 178 million (National Bureau of Statistics, 2011). By the end of 2020, the latter reached 264 million, up by 5.44 percentage points, with the aging rate up to 18.70% (National Bureau of Statistics, 2021). In addition to the large population size, the impact of disability and aging on human physiology and functioning also directly or indirectly impairs social and cultural sustainability. The views towards “disability” in the world, for example, have undergone a shift from a “medical model” to a “social model” (United Nations, 2006). This requires an equal access for all people from a fundamental starting point, including infrastructure, public resources, employment, leisure, etc. In fact, developing an “inclusive” value system comprising the “de-labeling” of many specific groups and the concept of equality and diversity has been a theme that has been strengthened in countries around the world for nearly half a century. Some specific issues, such as the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD), and other dysfunctions, that cannot be adequately explained or eliminated by modern science, are no longer simply referred to as mental or intellectual disabilities, but concluded as “neurodiversity.” For seniors, along with the continuous improvement of medical treatment and health management, their life expectancy is increasing, but many functional aging and chronic diseases bring about problems that cannot be solved by current medical science. As diseases like cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s, and stroke have a severe impact on mobility and a great demand for health care services, how to actively address aging and achieve healthy aging is a strategic priority of countries around the world (Yang and Cui, 2020).
If we agreed that behavioral and perceptual barriers were not just a physical problem but are a dynamic result of the interaction between individual and environmental factors (WHO, 2001) and a unification of individual needs/interests and public interests/sustainable development, an accessible environment would be the “greatest common denominator” in this unity. Accessibility has evolved from barrier-free physical space to accessibility in different dimensions and perspectives by means of universal design, inclusive design, and an empowering environment. This is a process of acknowledging and strengthening above-mentioned equality, diversity, and inclusion. The Beijing Declaration on Universal Accessibility Development issued at the Inclusion and Diversity: International Conference on Accessible Development in 2018 marks a closer integration of the concept of inclusive and accessible development after the UN Habitat III Conference.
After more than four decades since its reform and opening-up, China has made great achievements in the conceptual understanding, standard development, and implementation of accessibility, with the 2008 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games as a hallmark and the State Council’s Construction of Barrier-Free Environments Regulations in 2012 as a milestone. However, as a compulsory, systematic, scientific, and practical standard system, China’s accessibility standard system has such problems as insufficient supply, incompleteness, unclear responsibility, little compulsory force, and a weak implementation mechanism. Especially in recent years, the aging population, urban regeneration, rural revitalization, and other major construction projects ask for a better accessible environment and cross-sectoral development, which requires a better accessibility standard system. Since 2015 China has launched standardization reforms. It indicates that in the face of the new development trend, we usher in new opportunities to reflect on standards related to the accessible environment from the system level.
A review of the research regarding China’s accessibility standard system shows that most studies are carried out after 2000 and focus on standards formulation, the development history of big events, and international comparative analysis. While formulating accessibility standards, Zhou Wenlin (2010) summarizes the history of the accessible environment construction since the reform and opening-up and points out that China began to create a comprehensive accessible environment with the proposal and formulation of the Design Standards of Urban Roads and Buildings for the Convenience of Persons with Disabilities (Trial) (JGJ50-88) (DSURBCPD for short). Lü Xiaoquan (2007) compares relevant provisions of China’s accessibility standards with those of the International Paralympic Committee, those in the United States, Australia, and Lebanon, as well as those in London and Athens in order to comprehensively consider the accessibility indicators for the 2008 Beijing Olympic andParalympic Games venues. Pan Haixiao, Xiong Jinyun, and Liu Bing (2007), Jia Weiyang and Wang Xiaorong (2014), Zhu Changkang (2012), and Shao Lei and Qu Wenyong (2019) also conduct comparative studies between China and the United States, Japan, and European countries on the conceptual awareness, regulations and standards, design concepts, social participation, and supervision and management of the accessible environment from an international perspective. However, there are relatively less studies to explore the evolution of accessibility standards and the latest development trend based on China’s accessibility standard system and standardization reforms. Therefore, this paper aims to analyze the historical evolution, characteristics, and development trend of China’s accessibility standard system, as well as the international experience, in order to put forward feasible suggestions for the development of China’s accessibility standard system in the new era.
2. Evolution of China's accessibility standard system
Compared with developed European and North American countries, China started late, but it has seen a rapid development since its accessibility standard was established in the 1980s. Since then, because of the government’s attention and a great demand for an accessible environment driven by social and economic development, accessibility has been highlighted in many sectors in the process of legislation and policy formulation. Gradually China’s accessibility standard system became relatively more complete, multi-level, and multi-dimensional.
2.1 Birth of China's accessibility standard
The first breakthrough in the issue of disability lies in the revision of the constitution. In 1982, China for the first time included “the state and society shall assist arrangements for the work, livelihood, and education of citizens who are blind, deaf, mute or have other disabilities” as a basic right of citizens in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.① In 1985 the China Foundation for Disabled Persons, the Beijing Disabled Persons’ Federation, and the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design jointly held the Seminar on Disabled Persons and Social Environment and issued an initiative fo rcreating a convenient living environment for persons with disabilities, which had a great social impact. Following this, at the Third Session of the Sixth CPC (the Communist Party of China) National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Third Session of the Sixth CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) National Committee, some NPC deputies and CPPCC members put forward suggestions that special arrangements for persons with disabilities should be included in the architectural design codes and municipal design codes. In 1989 the former Ministry of Construction, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) jointly promulgated the DSURBCPD,② which is mainly aimed at people with lower limbs and visual disabilities and applied to urban roads and important public buildings. This is the first accessibility industry standard in China, laying the first cornerstone of China’s accessibility standard system.
2.2 Development of accessibility-related standards
In 1990 the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons③ was published to further guarantee the legitimate rights and interests of persons with disabilities, including their career development, full participation and inclusion in social life on an equal footing, and sharing of social material and cultural achievements. It stipulates that the state and society should gradually create a favorable environment, enable persons with disabilities to participate in social activities, implement design standards of urban roads and buildings for the convenience of persons with disabilities, and adopt barrier-free facilities. In 1996 the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly④ was promulgated, requiring that while building new or renovating urban public facilities, residential neighborhoods, and houses, we should consider the special needs of seniors and build senior-friendly supporting facilities. These two legal documents have become important milestones in the development of China’s accessibility standard system.
Benefiting from the continuous reinforcement of the higher-level law, the building industry standard Codes for Design on Accessibility of Urban Roads and Buildings (JGJ50-2001) was released and implemented in 2001, replacing the DSURBCPD formulated in 1980s. This version of the code added the accessibility design regulations of residential buildings and neighborhoods, and improved design standards for some barrier-free facilities. In the same period, accessibility-related requirements were also formulated in the building design standards related to seniors, including the industry standard Code for Design of Buildings for Elderly Persons(JGJ122-99) jointly issued by the former Ministry of Construction and the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 1999 and the national standard Code for Design of Residential Building for the Aged (GB/T50340-2003) jointly promulgated by the former Ministry of Construction and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine in 2003.
In addition, relevant ministries and departments have also developed their own accessibility standards in some sectors and fields, including railway, civil aviation, website, and signage. For example, the former Ministry of Railways issued the Code for Design on Accessibility of Railway Passenger Station Buildings (TB 10083-2005); the Civil Aviation Administration of China released the Technical Standards for Airport Passenger Terminal Facilities with Accessibility by Individuals with Disabilities (MH/T5107-2009); the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology promulgated the Technical Requirements for Web Accessibility (YD/T 1761-2012), the Technical Requirements of Accessible Mobile Communication Terminal (YD/T 3329-2018). At the same time, municipal/provincial governments also formulated accessibility standards with local characteristics.
2.3 Big events facilitating the development of China's accessibility standard system
Big events, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Expo Shanghai 2010, pushed China’s accessibility standard system into a rapid development stage. In 2004, in order to assist the Olympic Games, the first local accessibility standard Regulations of Beijing Municipality on Construction and Administration of Barrier-Free Facilities was released, providing a standard for the construction and transformation of the accessible environment in Beijing.⑤ The Life and Sunshine Pavilion built specifically for the Expo became the first pavilion designed for persons with disabilities in the history of the Expo. It was themed by eliminating discrimination and poverty, caring for life, and sharing sunshine, and put forward the slogan of city making life better for persons with disabilities, which fully highlighted the concept and significance of the urban accessible environment.
In the same year, the national standard Construction Acceptance and Maintenance Standards of the Barrier-Free Facilities (GB50642-2011) was issued, filling the blank in the field of barrier-free facility construction acceptance and maintenance. Subsequently, the original Codes for Design on Accessibility of Urban Roads and Buildings (JGJ50-2001) was replaced by the Codes for Accessibility Design (GB50763-2012), which was published in 2012 and has been in use since then. Based on practical experience, current situation analysis, and international standards, the new Codes further improved some indicators, expanded the targeted groups from “people with limited mobility” to all “people in need,” and extended the application scope to urban squares, urban green areas, historic buildings, etc. In the same year, the State Council promulgated the Construction of Barrier-Free Environments Regulations,⑥ which for the first time clarified the legal responsibilities during the barrier-free facility construction and use at the national level, and specified facilities that failed to meet the construction standards of barrier-free facilities should be renovated and that those in charge should be punished in accordance with law.
2.4 The comprehensive optimization period of China's accessibility standard system
During the 13th Five-Year Plan period, along with the transformation of social and economic development from high speed to high quality, the cognition of the current principal contradiction in society has been formed as an unbalanced and insufficient development, and China’s accessibility standard system has entered a comprehensive optimization period particularly owing to the quality development requirement of major projects, such as the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, Daxing International Airport, Xiong’an New Area, and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area; more efforts to building “model cities”; cities like Shenzhen and Hangzhou to improve the quality of the human settlements; and deeper understanding of all industries, including information technology, culture, and tourism, on all aspects of the accessible environment construction. The accessibility standard system has been unprecedentedly enriched in both its scope and level in terms of accessibility itself, meeting the needs of people at all ages, urban-rural environment improvement, as well as development of information technology and rehabilitation aids, etc.
In 2015 the State Council issued the Plan for Furthering the Standardization Reforms,⑦ to establish a new standard system featuring synergistic and coordinated development of standards formulated under the lead of the government and those formulated driven by the market, especially to coordinate formulation and implementation of standards which involve multiple departments and usually generate intense debates. In the Plan specific requirements are proposed, like integrating and narrowing down compulsory standards, optimizing recommendatory standards, cultivating group standards, activating enterprise standards, and improving the international level of standards.
On this basis, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) (2016) proposed to gradually replace the existing scattered compulsory provisions with full-text compulsory standards that are collectively referred to as technical specifications, which were divided into two categories – engineering projects and general technologies in the Notice of the MOHURD on Furthering the Standardization Reforms in Engineering Construction (hereinafter referred to as Notice) in 2016.
Against this backdrop, the new version of the General Accessibility Specification began to be formulated as one of the technical specifications for general technologies (MOHURD, 2019), which represents the birth of a general accessibility standard with full-text compulsory effect in the context of standardization reforms. In addition, in accordance with the Notice, it is imperative to change the model that standards are supplied solely by the government and to exempt the administrative approval which is in the way of developing group standards. Therefore, since the announcement of the Notice, China has seen more diversified accessibility standard makers and the emergence of innovative and competitive group standards. For example, the China Banking Association released the Banking Accessible Environment Standard (T/CBA 202-2018); the China Association of Persons with Physical Disability issued the Construction Specification for Tourism Accessible Environment (T/CAPPD 1-2018) and the Accessibility Guide for Multistory Industrial Buildings (T/CAPPD 2-2018). Accordingly, China’s accessibility standard system is moving towards a higher level featuring overall cross-sectoral coordination, spurring market vitality, compulsory standards as the core, and organic connectivity of recommendatory, group, and enterprise standards.
3. Weaknesses of China's accessibility standard system
After four decades of development, China has gradually developed an accessibility standard system that takes national standards as the bottom-line requirements, and industry and local standards as support and as a complement (see Figure 1). As accessibility is cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary, the responsibilities, rights, and work connection are complicated in the governance process; implementers and users are diverse and they have different demands; and the use intensity of facilities varies greatly. All these bring about great uncertainties to the implementation and operation. The contradiction between the individuation and standardization of barrier-free requirements means that to popularize universal design or inclusive design, we must take into consideration the cost and modernization level. The existing product design and construction quality are not satisfactory. In addition, lack of standards in the past resulted in built-up spaces having many problems and being in a complicated situation, failing to meet the standards for the newly-built environment. These contradictions are also very prominent in the concept and implementation of China’s accessibility standard system, which can be summarized as the following points.
Figure 1 Evolution of China’s accessibility standard system (state level)
3.1 Insufficient systematization
As mentioned above, the concept of accessibility has gone through a process from eliminating barriers in physical space to pursuing social equality and inclusiveness both domestically and internationally. The accessibility standards have been expanded from mainly targeting people with lower limb and visual disabilities to a wide range of disabilities, including mental and intellectual disabilities; from “people with limited mobility” to “people in need.” In terms of the application scope, it has developed from point-shaped barrier-free facilities and linear barrier-free access to a planar accessible environment, and has successively covered residential buildings, residential neighborhoods, urban square, urban greenspace, and transport facilities based on urban roads and public buildings. Involving multiple sectors, departments, and fields, the accessibility standards often face the challenging difficulty to coordinate stakeholders that have different positions.
3.2 Difficulties in measuring the rigidity and flexibility of technical specifications
Undoubtedly the core issue that needs to be repeatedly studied and discussed in the formulation process is whether the articles of accessibility-related standards are compulsory or recommendatory, whether they are principles or indicators, and whether they are formulated according to high or low standards. China’s vast territory means that it comprises regions which differ greatly in geographical conditions, socio-economic development levels,as well as difficulties in creating an accessible environment. In this context, compulsory standards are prone to become a “one size fits all” pattern, and recommendatory standards are often too descriptive, resulting in unclear acceptance criteria. For example, how much slip-resistance coefficient should an accessible entrance have to be “flat, smooth, and non-slip,” and how many newtons of open force can be called “convenient for opening”? There is a problem of how to determine the value of the indicative expression. A higher standard may lead to difficulty in applying it to the relatively backward areas and old buildings; a lower standard may result in difficulty in improving the accessible environment, and consequently it will lag behind the social and economic development for a long time, and cannot meet people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.
3.3 Difficulties in guaranteeing the quality of design and construction
Since accessibility involves many fields, the accessibility design requirements are scattered in many engineering standards, and there is no special accessibility standard. Only five compulsory articles are in the Codes for Accessibility Design (GB50763-2012) and designers are often untrained, leading to the fact that the barrier-free details are often ignored in the process of design and construction drawing review. In the construction process, companies generally have no special planning and elaboration on the construction of barrier-free facilities, and fail to offer accessibility-related safety technology training for relevant operators, resulting in unclear accessibility requirements and many construction quality problems, especially some concealed works, later correction of which is time-consuming and costly. Meanwhile, in the current domestic market there are few standardized and high-quality barrier-free parts that meet specifications, and it is difficult for the size of parts to meet the index in the provisions, which is also an important cause of quality problems.
3.4 Lack of supervision on construction acceptance and maintenance
The construction and delivery of barrier-free facilities are usually combined with the construction and delivery of construction projects, and they are often carried out simultaneously. At present, the acceptance of China’s construction project is based on the Unified Standard for Constructional Quality Acceptance of Building Engineering (GB50300-2013), whereas many barrier-free facilities are scattered in part projects and their sub-part projects (see Table 1). Therefore, it is easy to ignore them and difficult to carry out special systematic acceptance. Moreover, many barrier-free facilities are built after the project is delivered or during the second decoration stage owing to their subordinate status, which is unfavorable for controlling the construction process and quality. The Construction Acceptance and Maintenance Standards of the Barrier-Free Facilities (GB50642-2011) (hereinafter referred to as CAMSBFF) provides a basis for the special acceptance of barrier-free facilities, but only the acceptance of the embedded parts of grab bars is compulsory. The rest are recommendatory with little binding force and fail to cover the acceptance of information accessibility. In addition, the acceptance is only carried out by the supervision engineer (the technical person in charge of the construction unit) who organized the person in the construction company in charge of the quality of barrier-free facilities, lacking personal experience and participation of persons with disabilities.
Table 1 Comparison of part projects and sub-item projects classification of barrier-free facilities
Source: Unified Standard for Constructional Quality Acceptance of Building Engineering (GB50300-2013).
Maintenance is also one of the weak links in the implementation of the accessible environment. After acceptance, many barrier-free facilities cannot be used owing to negligent maintenance, which even leads to accidents causing damage to people. For example, wheelchair ramps at the entrances and exits of buildings are blocked by motorized or non-motorized vehicles, railings, etc.; individual wash rooms for wheelchair users are usually locked or commandeered as tool rooms; tactile ground surface indicators are occupied by bicycles or street trees; and nobody answers the call from lift platforms.
3.5 Difficulties in defining who should take charge of the accessible environment governance
Distributed in various fields, including urban roads, urban green areas, residential neighborhoods, residential buildings, and public buildings, barrier-free facilities are under the management of different organizations and departments. Therefore, it is difficult to define the scope of public and private responsibility and who should be in charge. Although it is proposed for the first time in the CAMSBFF that the barrier-free facilities in public buildings and residential buildings are maintained by the property-owning company or the entrusted property management companies, and public facilities are under the charge of the organizations designated by the government department (see Table 2), there are still no specific rules for promoting and supervising the implementation of relevant responsibilities.
Table 2 Maintenance scope of barrier-free facilities
4. Inspirations drawn from international development trend for improving China's accessibility standard system
4.1 Following a systematic perspective to strengthen overall planning and coordination
The accessible environment is an open and complex giant system (Wu, 2001) that is comprehensive, dynamic, and systematic. Countries like Singapore, Canada, and Germany have more than ten years of accessible environmental master planning and construction, and they have formulated corresponding master plans and implementation roadmaps and promoted them through long-term and uninterrupted barrier-free facility construction plans. For example, Singapore has implemented a ten-year accessibility master plan since 2006 and an enabling environment plan since 2007, proposed in the 3rd Enabling Masterplan 2017 – 2021 to promote accessibility across departments in all industries of the country (MSF, 2016). Taking the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games as an opportunity, Japan approved the Universal Design 2020 Action Plan in 2017 to establish a legacy mechanism for the games in all aspects, from both hardware and software (Gong and Gihei, 2018). While building the accessible environment, China should establish an inter-departmental joint conference mechanism, to promote the implementation of departmental responsibilities, the formulation of accessibility standards and action plans, as well as the clarification of supervision and evaluation, in order to achieve planned and step-by-step implementation.
4.2 Universal design to promote inclusive development
The term “universal design” was coined by American architect Ronald L. Mace in 1987 to describe the design methodology that enables products and the built environment to have aesthetic and use value to the greatest extent possible by everyone. Being user-defined and market-driven, universal design contains the connotation of accessibility, but there is no ultimate standard. Instead, it is continuously adjusted to fit the needs of users, and spirals up through the process of design, production, use, evaluation, and feedback. The establishment and implementation of China’s accessibility standard system should be led by universal design, with universal accessibility as the basic paradigm. The sustained innovation should run through in the entire production and consumption process, to achieve an inclusive society and sustainable development.
4.3 Multiple participants to meet diverse demands
The core concept of universal accessibility is “user-centered.” The International Day of Disabled Persons in 2004 is themed by “Nothing About Us Without Us,”⑧ which indicates that the establishment and implementation of the accessibility standard system depends on the full participation of various groups. For example, China’s Taiwan region has established such non-governmental organizations as the Taiwan Disability-Free Association (TDFA) to help local authorities develop accessibility implementation methods and policies. The TDFA regularly holds accessibility training workshops, where well-known architects lecture accessibility-related practitioners on accessibility regulations, engineering construction, interior decoration, and other related knowledge. In China’s accessibility standard system, it is essential to establish a multi-participation framework, so as to strengthen the communication and collaboration among users and to promote participation of persons with disabilities in various stages.
4.4 Strengthening the acceptance supervision
Taking China’s Taiwan region as an example, the TDFA participates in accessibility inspection, actively organizes the whole society inspection, and supervises the government to implement the policies by means of tough punitive measures (Sun and Cui, 2007). The completion acceptance of new buildings must be approved by the TDFA inspection team, and projects that fail to pass the inspection are not allowed to be given building permits or open for public use. Chinese mainland should also carry out systematic special accessibility acceptance mechanism in the future, and promote the participation of persons with disabilities in the acceptance process. Building projects that cannot meet the safety and use requirements in accessibility standards should not be accepted.
4.5 Refining the rule of law to improve the mechanism
Throughout the history of the disability rights movement in the international community, the establishment and implementation of the accessibility standard system cannot be separated from the “Teeth of Law.” In the 1960s, under the influence of the Civil Rights Movement and Independent Living Movement, the United States announced the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, in which Article 504, for the first time in the history, aimed to eliminate discrimination against persons with disabilities through legislation, giving rise to many related lawsuits and campaigns. By the 1990s, the United States had also rolled out the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which constituted a legal framework for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The establishment and implementation of China’s accessibility standard system in the future must also be fully supported and guaranteed from legislation, justice, and law enforcement, to improve the mechanism through increasing enforcement efforts.
Although China started relatively late, it has seen a comparatively rapid development of the accessibility standard system driven by social and economic development and big events. In1982 the revision of the constitution brought about a historical breakthrough in the issue of disability; in 1989 the first accessibility standard DSURBCPD was released, laying a foundation for the establishment of China’s accessibility standard system; the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly promulgated in1990 and 1996 respectively are important milestones. With the support of the higher-level law, various accessibility standards have been formulated and revised, gradually forming a multi-level and multi-dimensional system framework, with national standards as the bottom-line requirements, and industry standards and local standards supporting each other. During the 13th Five-Year Plan period, along with standardization reforms, China’s accessibility standards system has entered a comprehensive optimization period and moved closer towards the international level through strengthening the coordination of departments, giving full play to the vitality of market players, taking compulsory standards as the core, and organically integrating commendatory, group, and enterprise standards.
However, the current standard system has some deficiencies owing to the top-level design and other reasons in specifications, quality, supervision, and responsibilities. Firstly, the accessible environment construction and management is still divided based on departments’ respective rights and responsibilities, and lacks overall coordination in the mechanism. At the same time, with a vast territory, China has regions which differ greatly in geographical conditions and socio-economic levels. It means that users have various accessible demands, which make it difficult to measure the standard. In addition, the untrained design and construction personnel, lack of supervision on construction acceptance and maintenance, and the difficulty in identifying who should be responsible make it hard to guarantee product design and construction quality.
In view of these problems, and considering China’s specific conditions, this paper provides the following suggestions for the development of China’s accessibility standard system based on domestic and international experience and practices. Firstly, a systematic perspective is the top-level design, and the coordination across departments, industries, and fields is crucial. At the same time, universal accessibility is the basic paradigm, and public participation is the core method. Finally, it is fundamental to improve the legal system. The establishment and implementation of China’s accessibility standard system in the future must be fully supported and guaranteed from legislation to justice and law enforcement.
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Xu Bingjun, PhD Candidate, School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, Beijing, P. R. China.
Shao Lei (corresponding author), Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Tsinghua University; Executive Dean, Institute for Accessibility Development, Tsinghua University, Beijing, P. R. China.