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Paralympics boon to China's disabled

THE WORLD

The Games for the physically impaired start Saturday, but they have already left one group heartened.

September 05, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Never mind the prospect of a swimmer competing in the butterfly who has only one leg, or a long jumper who is blind. To Zhou Rong, it was miracle enough when she saw a television report showing a disabled person in Beijing navigating a wheelchair onto a public bus.

"I was so happy," said Zhou, 29, who works in the southern city of Changsha for the Hunan province Disabled Persons' Federation and uses a wheelchair. "I'd never seen anything like that in my life."

If the Summer Olympics were a coming-out party for China as a whole, the Paralympic Games will be an even greater event for the country's disabled. In preparation for the 11-day international competition that opens Saturday, Beijing is being retrofitted with ramps for wheelchairs and street crossing signals for the blind. The city also has acquired 2,000 "kneeling buses."

Even the Great Wall, once so forbidding to invaders, is now accessible to the disabled with the recent installation of a double-doored elevator and ramp that allow wheelchairs to enter and exit in the Badaling section close to the capital.

Rules prohibiting large dogs in the capital were relaxed to allow the blind to bring their guide dogs.

The Chinese government is determined to give the participants at least a taste of the hoopla that accompanied last month's Summer Games. A lavish opening ceremony is planned for Saturday night at the 91,000-seat National Stadium, called the Bird's Nest. State-run CCTV has been showing many of the 4,200 participating athletes arriving at the now very wheelchair-accessible Beijing airport.

Every day this week, newspapers have been filled with flattering photos of the disabled -- not only athletes but children whose limbs were amputated after the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province.

"The Paralympics are a platform for ordinary people to accept the disabled and for the disabled to accept themselves," said Qian Zhiliang, a professor of special education at Beijing Normal University.

Qian says the disabled in China have suffered because of widespread belief, particularly among rural people, that they must have done something wrong in a previous life.

"There is a difference in Western and Eastern culture in these attitudes toward the disabled. A lot of these ideas about human rights for the disabled were introduced from the outside and are only slowly being accepted," Qian said.

China has an estimated 83 million disabled people. Until recently, the prevailing attitude was that they didn't need accessible buses, crosswalks or ramps because they weren't expected to go anywhere.

Zhou, the woman who works at the federation for the disabled, had polio as a young child. But her parents supported her education and pushed hard for her to have the same opportunities as other children. She quickly discovered the impediments when she tried to become a doctor. Although she scored 568 on an examination for which the cutoff was 520, she was denied a place in medical school.

"They said it was because I was disabled. They didn't need an excuse," Zhou said. She was eventually accepted into a program to study law and ethics.

Even today, Zhou knows few other disabled people who work at regular jobs -- in fact she has seen few who go out in public as she does. Zhou lives close enough to her workplace that a relative can push her to work in her wheelchair.

"People always stare at me. But I will say that the stares are getting friendlier. People smile and look in an understanding way," she said.

Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has made a concerted effort to expand the rights of the disabled, with some critics suggesting that this may have been a way to compensate for shortcomings in other aspects of human rights. One catalyst for change was the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, whose son was paralyzed in 1968 after being thrown out of a third-floor window by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The son, Deng Pufang, founded and still heads the Chinese Federation for the Disabled.

Although the Paralympics came to Beijing as part of a package deal with the main Olympics, China bid aggressively to host the Special Olympics last year in Shanghai. (The Special Olympics is for the intellectually disabled, the Paralympics for the physically disabled.)

The Chinese government recently ratified a United Nations agreement that guarantees equal treatment for the disabled. But millions of disabled Chinese still live in abject poverty, often forced into begging or slave-like labor in order to survive.

"The Chinese government deserves praise for enacting laws and ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement released Thursday. "But so far, these protections have meant little to persons with disabilities and their advocates in China who struggle to promote their rights, and in particular, to fairly compete for employment."

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