Wheelchair vlogger tackles 'the monster' with gutsy zeal

Hu Min
Travel may be difficult but it's not impossible for a 30-year-old woman who refuses to let her handicap hinder her.
Hu Min
Wheelchair vlogger tackles the monster with gutsy zeal
Ti Gong

Zhao Hongcheng in a journey to Japan.

At the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan, Zhao Hongcheng, 30, looked up from her wheelchair to gaze in amazement at the swirls of fish. Other tourists graciously dispersed around her to give her the best viewing spot.

"I felt that I was seen for the first time," said the polio victim, who has been confined to a wheelchair since childhood.

Zhao, a video blogger better known by her online moniker Dachengzi, uploaded her experience at the aquarium on video-sharing platform Bilibili, where she has tens of thousands of fans.

She has released 33 videos on Bilibili so far, with a combined 2.2 million-plus screenings. The videos record her daily life and some of her travels. They all show how she surmounts obstacles that most people never experience.

It all started after a trip to the southern city of Guangzhou last year. She uploaded a video of the trip online, just for fun. Unexpectedly, it became instantly popular and won her many followers.

"I never expected one video would change my life so much,” she told Shanghai Daily.

Wheelchair vlogger tackles the monster with gutsy zeal

The thumbnail Zhao's vlog on how to get to work in a wheelchair

That initial vlog was watched more than 40,000 times on Bilibili, creating a fan base of more than 45,000 fans. The numbers may fall short of major vlog celebrities, but it is a milestone for a handicapped person.

Zhao’s videos have opened a window on the plight of the disabled and become a platform for them to open hearts, share their sadness and frustrations, and find encouragement and empowerment.

"There are disabled people who have hardly ever left home who are now venturing out after seeing my videos,” she said. “That is very heartening.”

Her most watched vlog is one entitled "How to Get to Work in a Wheelchair." It has been viewed more than 400,000 times and drawn some 3,000 comments.

"I wish to tell handicapped people who want to work that worries, panic and concerns should not be stumbling blocks, by showing them my personal experiences," said Zhao.

She was born in the city of Shaoyang in central China's Hunan Province. Her current apartment in Changning District has a tidy, pleasant environment, and she has two cats. She works at a big Internet company very close to her home. 

Zhao flashes smiles throughout our interview. They mirror her personality.

"I suppose most disabled are like me at the very beginning,” she said. “But I gradually realized that many of them, unlike me, spend their whole lives in low self-esteem and isolation."

Zhao's parents' are schoolteachers who provided the basis for her optimism from a young age. They accompanied her to school on bikes, and classmates wheeled her to the restroom. She was popular with classmates and surrounded by friends.

Wheelchair vlogger tackles the monster with gutsy zeal

Zhao's personal page on Bilibili

"I was well protected in my childhood, and I never felt any discrimination," she said.

However, anxiety mounted during high school study when she started preparing for the college entrance examination.

"Would I be enrolled? Would universities reject me because of my handicap? Would I be able to find a job after graduation? All these questions put pressure on me,” she said.

Even her parents' high expectations weighed heavily on her.

"They always believe that I need to make extra efforts because of my disability and that I must try my best,” she said.

Zhao studied day and night but still failed the exam the first year.

"It is like you need to score 90 when others can squeak through with 60," she said. "I felt like there was a big monster entangling me. But after many years, I realized that the monster is not my body, but rather social norms.”

In 2008, she was enrolled at a university in Hunan, where she had a separate dormitory room because of a lack of barrier-free facilities.

After post-graduate work, Zhao found a job at Internet giant Alibaba, which has policies favoring the disabled. She later changed jobs and went to work at Netease, another Chinese Internet giant. She said she was very moved when the company renovated a restroom for her to make it barrier-free.

Wheelchair vlogger tackles the monster with gutsy zeal
Ti Gong

Zhao Hongcheng

Zhao moved to Shanghai last year to work at a company that also made alternations to accommodate her handicap.

Zhao has been lucky. For most disabled people in China, a barrier-free environment is still a dream.

"It is difficult for the disabled to venture out alone in China,” she said.

There are barriers everywhere: stairs, narrow-door restrooms and street accessways.

"I often feel frustrated and angry, like I am receiving a punch on my face and don’t know whom to strike back at,” she said.

Zhao simply refuses to let barriers stop her. She lives alone, goes shopping by herself and travels on high-speed railways. Her videos document how she navigates through life.

She has traveled to Beijing, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Okinawa, among other places.

"I search online for hotels with barrier-free rooms, which is usually difficult," she told Shanghai Daily. "In many cases, hotel staff don’t understand my needs and can’t help me.

Taking a bath is one of the most difficult aspects of her life. When she travels, she needs to buy a special bathroom stool in advance via online retailers.

"It is not fair, frankly," she said.

She said her most impressive and pleasant trip was to Okinawa.

"There were no doorsills or stairs leading into the hotel’s barrier-free rooms, the washbasin was lower and the shower was set up for a handicapped person,” she said. “Rooms were equipped with handrails.”

A barrier-free ramp leads to the site of the aquarium, and the city provides facilities for the disabled on subway trains and at tourist attractions.

"I realized for the first time that travel doesn’t have to be inconvenient for the disabled,” she said. “After all, it’s not my fault that I am unable to walk."

Zhao spends weekend time making vlogs. She shoots them with the assistance of her boyfriend and does all the editing herself. It can take three or four weekends to complete a vlog.

"I feel as if I have opened a new world since I started making vlogs,” she said, “and I have come to meet many interesting people online, like landscape designers sensitive to the need for barrier-free access.”

Zhao said she initially worried about her appearance in blogs, but netizen feedback assuaged her anxiety.

Comments like "you are beautiful and amazing" and "the content is supreme” give her encouragement. Many netizens are sharing their own stories with her — tales of discrimination, dating problems and bullying.

"I read all of them and answer as many as I can,” said Zhao. "I try my best to encourage those who are sad or frustrated.”

One girl sought her advice on barrier-free travel tips. She said she has a disabled brother who hasn’t been out of the house for more than 20 years and she wanted to take him on a trip.

Wheelchair vlogger tackles the monster with gutsy zeal

Later, Zhao was overjoyed to receive a message from the girl, saying that she and her brother had traveled to Shenzhen and had a very pleasant trip — “thanks to you!”

Zhao said she wants to continue to use her vlog to raise the public awareness about the plight of the disabled.

"People are very often enthusiastic to help us, but that is not what we are looking for,” she said. “We just want an environment where we can live independently without relying on other people all the time.”

Last year, Zhao began swimming, with the help of a coach. It’s one of many “first” accomplishments that give her encouragement. She has her own rented apartment, dates and even went on the Tron Lightcycle Power Run at Shanghai Disney Resort.

It seems that the "monster" inside her body is crumbling.

"My next wish is to go to Switzerland when the coronavirus epidemic wanes," Zhao said.

Special Reports