As China counts down to the much-hyped 2008 Summer Olympics, a quieter effort is under way to prepare for its sister event, the Paralympics.
The Paralympics offer China an equal, if not a greater, chance of national sporting glory than the main event: Its athletes swept the medals table at Athens 2004. Around 4,000 athletes from 150 countries are expected to attend the games, to be held next September after the Olympics end in August. Organizers are promising to stage another world-class sporting spectacular on a par with the regular games.
The government is also holding out the prospect of improved access to public facilities for Beijing's large – but mostly invisible – physically disabled population.
Authorities face an uphill task, though, in refitting Beijing's stations, museums, banks, and malls for the disabled and elderly. Simply crossing the road in a city fretted with stair-only footbridges and underpasses is virtually impossible in a wheelchair.
Perhaps even harder, say advocates for the disabled, is shifting attitudes and curbing discrimination toward an estimated 83 million Chinese living with various disabilities.
Installing ramps and wheelchair-friendly doors is welcome, but needs to be matched by broader social acceptance of people who are often hidden from view, either by choice or necessity.
"Disabled people don't want to go outside, because they think ordinary people will be shocked. But if we go out, then people will get used to us," says Wen Jun, a paraplegic who runs an online disabilities network. "By going out, we say to the government that we're here and we need more facilities."
A citywide effort to welcome disabled
China's action plan lists dozens of projects designed to clear a path for wheelchair users and other handicapped people by the end of 2007, including Olympics venues and tourist sites. A new sports training center for China's disabled athletes is also under construction.
Under China's current building regulations, developers are required to install elevators and access ramps in new and renovated buildings of six floors or higher. These rules, which aren't always enforced, predate the current spurt of Olympics-related construction. Wheelchair users say facilities are improving in cities like Beijing, but complain that getting around is tough, particularly if you can't afford to take taxis.
One problem is Beijing's subway system, which is being extended ahead of the Olympics. New subway stations will have elevators, but wheelchair users complain that older stops are impassable. One disabled woman is now trying to sue district officials for not installing an elevator at her local station, according to her lawyer, Li Fangping.
In 2005, Beijing was among 12 cities in China praised by authorities as an exemplar of disabled access. A distinct feature of its sidewalks is a strip of raised concrete slats designed for blind people using walking aids. However, cars and bicycles parked on sidewalks obstruct the slats, limiting their usefulness.
China's disabled face discrimination
As well as physical barriers, Chinese people with disabilities face discrimination at school and in the workplace. Only 63 percent of disabled children under 15 attend school, compared with 98 percent of all children, according to a 2006 national survey. Some universities use physical exams to reject qualified disabled students, a practice that was outlawed in 1991. Teacher-training schools are among the worse offenders, says Ma Yue, a legal officer at the China Disabled Persons' Federation.
"A lot of people don't understand or respect disabled people. These attitudes are at many levels of society, even among intellectuals. It's rare in China to see a disabled teacher," says Ms. Ma.
While elderly people pushed by a family member are a common sight here, an unaccompanied wheelchair user draws stares. Going it alone as Zou Fang does on solo trips is a showstopper. An avid traveler who was paralyzed after a 1997 work accident, Mr. Zou just ended a month-long tour of 11 cities across China. He travels by bus and train, asking for help from drivers to lift his wheelchair aboard.
Zou says that disabled people aren't taught to be independent in China. "I show my photos to my [handicapped] friends and they say, oh, I envy you, I'd love to travel, but I don't think I can do it," he says.
The problem is not isolated to China. Across Asia, people with disabilities face barriers to social participation, as well as insufficient wheelchair-friendly services, says Aiko Akiyama, a regional disabilities specialist for the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand. One exception is Japan, a wealthy country with an aging population.
"Twenty or 30 years ago, you never saw people in wheelchairs, except for a few activists. Now I see disabled people have become part of [Japan's] social landscape," Ms. Akiyama says.
Paralympics organizers hope that China's athletes can chip away at some of these prejudices during next year's games, as spectators get caught up in the excitement.
At a gymnasium in Beijing, a dozen young men race the length of a basketball court, practicing stops and spins in their streamlined wheelchairs. They break away to shoot hoops, as their coach calls out instructions. For Chen Qi, a muscular, gum-chewing athlete with dyed-blond hair, these daily training sessions could be a route to glory.
He began playing basketball five years ago in his southern hometown of Guangzhou, where he was working as a repairman for mobile phones. This is his first shot at the Paralympics, and a chance to overcome his disability, the result of childhood polio.
"A lot of people think that your legs are disabled, so how can you play basketball? They can't imagine it. After they watch a game, they're stunned and I get respect," Mr. Chen says.