At a recent performance in Shanghai Concert Hall, some of the listeners were lying in the aisles, wagging their tails to the music.
Seeing-eye dogs were there for a concert featuring the Shanghai Disabled People’s Choir as it celebrated its 10th anniversary. In what was probably a first, seeing-eye dogs were allowed in with their blind owners.
It all started with a call from a blind woman who asked if she could take her dog to the concert. That got organizers thinking about an issue they had never really considered before — access to the arts for the blind.
As a result, they made special seating arrangements for blind concert-goers at two ends of the concert hall, ensuring that their dogs could lie beside them.
Staff and volunteers were on hand to offer help and to remind other concert-goers not to distract the dogs. Anyone not wishing to sit near the dogs was given a seat on the second tier.
For the blind, the concert was a special treat. Huang Ming, 63, who lost her sight 10 years ago said she felt the melody washing over her.
“It reminded me how it was to attend a live concert,” said the former concert pianist. “It’s so different from playing the piano alone at home, even though I sometimes draw the curtains to try to imitate the sound of a concert hall. I am so grateful that I could bring my dog.”
Needless to say, the concert was a great success and possibly a forerunner of things to come for people with special needs, according to Qu Dapeng, a founder of the Shanghai Barrier-Free Film Program, who worked with the concert hall on the arrangements for the performance.
“Blind people need the arts in their lives, and they certainly have the right to it,” said Qu.
More than 400 blind people showed up for the first barrier-free film event in the Cathay Theater in 2012, even though the screening room only held about 200. The program has since expanded to 17 cinemas offering running narrations of films from the Shanghai People’s Broadcasting Station. Blind audiences come with their families or with dogs.
Jing Xuefen, 54, who was born blind, goes once a month. The narrations allow her to “hear” a film the way others see it. In addition, the events bring together people with similar disabilities and interests.
“We chat, laugh and share our views on the films,” she said. “It’s like a festive outing for us.”
Qu said the program has transformed the lives of some, giving them an experience and social intercourse they never had before.
At the choir performance, 66-year-old Zhao Mingliang said he had never dreamed of singing in the concert hall, though he has always loved music.
“My name Mingliang means ‘bright,’ but my life was not very bright after I lost my eyesight,” he said. “Singing saved me. I am now I am in the spotlight, though I can’t see it.”
Another blind member of the choir, 38-year-old Han Ying, has been a member since 2012.
“Singing may just be a hobby for ordinary people, but it’s a psychological support for blind people,” said Han. “On stage, I realize a dream I never thought possible. There is so much I can do even if I am blind.”
However, access to the arts for the blind and others remains limited. Even with 17 cinemas running barrier-free films regularly, only around 20,000 people can be served each year. Shanghai has about 160,000 visually impaired residents.
Opportunities in the choir are even fewer. There are about 40 standing members of the disabled people’s choir, but it is difficult to recruit new members.
Qu wants more arts and cultural activities to be barrier-free.
“The concert went perfectly well, with 10 seeing-eye dogs attending,” Qu said. “It showed there is no need to worry about blind people and their dogs.”
China’s law says visually impaired people can take seeing-eye dogs to any public place and on all public transport. However, quite a number of public places, including theaters, have not adapted themselves to such visitors.
Qu’s team is planning to take small groups of blind people with their dogs to knock on the doors of cinemas and theaters next year to explain the need for barrier-free access.
“Everyone, regardless of their physical condition, has their rights protected by law,” said Qu, “We want to work with venues to prepare better access. One way or another, we are coming.”