Paralympics bring forward plight of China's disabled

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

David Gray/Reuters
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.
Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
Pushing ahead: Wang Tao was confined to a wheelchair after a car accident seven years ago and was unable to continue his college studies because of his disability. He hopes to open a store with his girlfriend (pictured) Tang Yi.
Zuma Press/Newscom
Trained to help out: Disabled tourists were transported in wheelchairs Monday as they paid a visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

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