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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.

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"The Chinese government deserves praise for enacting laws," says Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. But a failure to fully implement these laws, she adds, means that "so far these protections have meant little."

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On the physical front, the Paralympic Games have clearly sparked improvements in Beijing's cityscape for disabled people. Two thousand low-chassis buses have been brought into service, every subway station has a platform lift for wheelchair-bound passengers, and ramps have been built at many shopping malls and tourist spots such as the Forbidden City.

Such innovations, however, have barely spread beyond the capital, and there are few educational opportunities for disabled people outside big cities.

Zhang Jiong, for example, one of Ms. Zheng's students, had to leave his home province of Henan, where no high school could accommodate him, to study in another province.

That move changed the way people treated him, says Mr. Zhang. "When I was a kid people looked at me differently, they thought I had no future," he recalls. "Then I went to high school and people realized that I could learn a skill and I could survive."

Even so, Zhang says he does "not dare hope to get a job in a big radio station. I just want to fulfill my dream and show that blind people can do broadcasting."

He is a rare exception, however. Ninety-five percent of blind Chinese who find work are masseurs, Zhang says, and most of the rest are fortune tellers. Few other jobs are open to them.

The 20,000 disabled people in higher education, who represent only 0.5 percent of the disabled student-aged population, will rise, officials say. "We started late with education for the disabled, but in the last two decades we have been developing it fast," says Mr. Sun. "Still it will take some time to provide access to higher education to everyone who could benefit."

It is still unclear just how much lasting impact the Paralympics will have on Chinese policies and perceptions. Beijing's barrier-free facilities will last beyond the Games, organizing committee vice president Tang Xiaoquan told the state news agency Xinhua recently, "and we mean to get the city's nearly one million handicapped population more involved in public life."

"The Paralympics will focus the whole country's attention on the disabled, and they have pushed the government to invest more for the disabled" says Professor Zheng. "They will also show that people with a physical disability can contribute to society and be very useful citizens."

If that is a lesson that most Chinese still need to learn, Mr. Wyse says his experience caring for disabled children here has left him skeptical that the government will keep teaching it.

"The disabled parking slots you see at the airport were not there two months ago," he points out, "and I am not optimistic" they will still be there in two months' time. "When the Games are gone, everything will be gone with them," he says.

Wang Tao, is more sanguine. "People's attitudes to the disabled were improving anyway, but without the Paralympics they would not have improved so much," he says.

"It used to be that I would be in my wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of steps and nobody would offer to help," he remembers. "That doesn't happen any more."

Carol Huang contributed to this story.