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Paralympics bring forward plight of China's disabled

China's government only recently began addressing the needs of its 83 million disabled citizens.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 2008

Race to the finish: Pascuale Gallo (r.) of France ran the men’s 100-meter dash with his guide Monday during the 2008 Paralympic Games at Beijing’s National Stadium, also known as the ‘Bird’s Nest.’ Blind runners are attached at the hand to their guides.

David Gray/Reuters

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The Paralympic Games that opened here Saturday are drawing tens of thousands of spectators to venues across Beijing. Hardly any of them, though, are disabled.

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Even at the premier global event celebrating handicapped peoples' achievements, China's 83 million disabled citizens remain almost invisible, victims of a society slow to change its attitudes and a government that only recently began addressing their needs.

Officials and activists for the disabled, however, hope the Games will give fresh momentum to changes they say have been under way for some time, giving disabled people more of a role in Chinese society.

The interest in the Paralympics shows that "society is starting to recognize the existence of blind people," says Zheng Xiaojie, who runs a small school in Beijing teaching radio broadcasting to blind students. "People's attitudes are changing a lot."

Few, however, expect the two weeks of athletic competition to spark dramatic change. "A single event cannot change people's attitudes," cautions Sun Xiande, deputy head of the government-backed Disabled Persons Federation. "It is a lengthy process."

China has embarked on that process from a low threshold. "Most of the time the Chinese don't even know there is such a thing as the disabled," says Keith Wyse, an American who cares for orphans diagnosed with brittle-bone syndrome at a foster home south of Beijing. "When we take the kids out people stare, because they have never seen anyone in a wheelchair."

Even highly educated youths are often ignorant of disabled people's needs. When Wang Xiao, a junior at Peking University, took the exam to be an Olympic volunteer, the two hardest questions, she admits, were how to deal with someone in a wheelchair and how to help those walking with a cane.

That is largely because disabled people rarely venture out of their homes or institutions, for both physical and psychological reasons.

"The facilities and access for disabled people are generally not very good – there is no barrier-free access to lots of public places," points out Zheng Gongcheng, head of the department of Disabilities Studies at Beijing's People's University and an adviser to the government.

Harder than getting around, complains Wang Tao, a young man confined to a wheelchair since a car accident seven years ago, "is getting out of the house. Lots of residential compounds didn't plan for barrier-free facilities in their design."

Living with his parents in the port city of Tianjin, 50 miles east of Beijing, Mr. Wang says he goes out only once every week or two because his parents cannot carry him up or down stairs.

Even in Beijing, people still stare, he says, and "a lot of disabled people don't feel as if they are members of society. They feel alienated."

In recent years, the government has passed a raft of legislation – more than 50 laws of one sort or another – designed to give disabled people equal chances at education and jobs and to counter prejudice and discrimination.