China's Disabled Struggle For Better Opportunities

Advocates spotlight the need for jobs and improved living conditions

THE last thing Bao Juan wants to do is go home.

A graduate of Beijing University from Inner Mongolia, Miss Bao knows the battered wheelchair she relies on to move around will make it harder to beat tough competition for jobs in the Chinese capital.

But Bao (in her mid-20s), hopes her prestigious economics degree will pay off and keep her from returning to her small hometown, where life can be bleak for Chinese with disabilities.

``There is no easy way for us,'' she says. ``We want to work in the big cities, because they are better for people like me. But many students want to work here, so for the handicapped, it's more difficult.''

In the past year, China's neglected people with disabilities have gained a spotlight through the advocacy of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping's eldest son, Deng Pufang, who also uses a wheelchair.

As head of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, Mr. Deng has promoted the cause of China's physically and mentally disabled at home and at conferences around the world.

In effect, though, 51 million disabled Chinese, the world's largest population of people with disabilities, often suffer social isolation and harassment that economic reforms and better living standards are unlikely to alleviate soon, Chinese and Western observers say. In China, 1 out of 6 families has a disabled member, and these represent about 5 percent of the total population.

``Having a handicapped child is more of a stigma in China than in the West, where there is a higher level of education and less superstition and where parents can organize themselves,'' says Gotthard Oblau, an official with Amity Foundation, which runs programs for the disabled in China.

``Usually people are isolated in China if [they] have a handicapped child,'' Mr. Oblau continues. ``There is this tremendous instinctive embarrassment, which leads to isolation.''

Social disgrace makes it difficult for disabled people to become part of mainstream life, especially in rural areas. Indeed, many children born with disabilities are abandoned to die or taken to orphanages, where negligence is widespread and mortality rates are high.

At one orphanage in Jiangsu province, one-third of the 80 children living there are handicapped, Oblau says. ``They may start with physical handicaps, and because they get no stimulation, they develop mental handicaps,'' he says. ``So they just doze their days away. It's devastating.''

Deng Pufang's federation maintains that life for the disabled will improve with the better livelihoods generated by market-style reforms. At conferences held earlier this year, the association estimated that more than half the urban disabled are employed, many in more than 40,000 welfare enterprises established for them.

Special schools are on the rise, and the organization is promoting a quota system under which each state enterprise will have to hire a certain number of disabled workers.

The federation has given a new platform to the controversial younger Deng, who has been confined to a wheelchair since Red Guard radicals threw him out of a fourth floor window at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968. At that time, his father was one of Chairman Mao Zedong's top political aides before being publicly disgraced as a right-wing deviate.

IN 1989, Deng, who travels widely and is believed to have extensive business interests, became a target for students protesting corruption and nepotism among the children of China's top leaders.

Following the military suppression of the demonstrations in June that year, the government shut down Kanghua Development Corporation, a conglomerate set up by Deng, although he was never officially accused of any wrongdoing.

Disabled Chinese say Deng's publicity may help them in the long run. But they have yet to see any substantive results from his highly endowed organization. ``It doesn't do much that we can see,'' a disabled man says. Deng refused several requests for an interview.

Neglect of the disabled also results in little chance to go to school. According to the disabled federation, less than 6 percent of school-aged children who have disabilities and can hear and speak get even a beginning education. That is compared with 97 percent for able-bodied children.

``In China, the handicapped are not a priority. China believes in educating young people, but it has so many other needs that education of the handicapped is way down the line,'' says Darleene Adydan, an American who tutored disabled students at Beijing University, commonly called Beida.

Access to higher education is limited to a select few. Beida started a special program in 1990, but only at the urging of an activist English professor, Ren Jinbao. The 26 students in the program account for more than half of all disabled people in Chinese colleges, according the New China News Agency.

``Beida really doesn't want them. They're here under sufferance,'' says Marion Eskin, a visiting American who teaches a special English class for the Beida disabled students. ``You have kids who are extremely bright but are treated badly. They qualified to get into Beida, but they face a lot of discrimination.''

The students, most of whom had to overcome family trepidation to come to Beijing to study, say they don't mind that there are no elevators, ramps, services, or special consideration for them on campus. They just want a chance for a job, although prospects aren't bright for many of them.

``In some provinces, the economy is better and the handicapped might be able to get a job. But in many areas, the economy is poor and there is no hope,'' says Bo Yusu, a mathematics student from Hunan province. ``I hope to be a teacher and stay in Beijing.''

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