Paralympics to test Chinese attitudes to disability


CHINA:The presence of 4,200 disabled athletes is shaking up prejudices and secrecy towards disabled people in China, writes Clifford Coonanin Beijing

THE ANCIENT Forbidden City at Beijing's heart is especially forbidden to wheelchair users - to get into any of the Imperial Palace's precincts you need to get over a foot-high beam of wood, a headache for disabled tourists.

One of the positive spin-offs of staging the Paralympic Games, which open in the Chinese capital tonight, is that now there are ramps into the courtyards where emperors once roamed.

Wheelchair-friendly cabs wait outside the Bird's Nest stadium, buses fitted with ramps cruise the city and all over the capital there are banners and bunting proclaiming the arrival of 4,200 disabled athletes for the Paralympics. Each of the city's 123 subway stations now has at least one entrance equipped with a wheelchair lift.

China's 83 million disabled people are a largely invisible presence in a country where disabilities are viewed as a source of shame in some families, particularly in urban areas, and where discrimination is widespread.

But the Paralympics are being hailed as an opportunity for China to deal with deeply held prejudices, and to act as a catalyst for improving the situation for disabled people. "The most unacceptable thing for me is not being recognised by families and by society as a whole. Once a family has a disabled person, many people presume this family must have done some bad things, that it is a kind of karma," wrote one disabled commentator, Ai Na.

"When I was a little girl, if my brother brought friends home, I had to stay in my room and lock the door. This behaviour came to be normal some time later. Every time friends or relatives come by, I get nervous. Playing outside for me is like entering a strange and frightening world," she wrote.

Experience in other cities hosting the Paralympics has shown that the situation for the disabled improves after the games.Cynics say the Paralympics will do as much to change prejudices against the disabled in China as the Olympics did to improve human rights, ie not very much.

There is a lot of work to be done. Disabled people face enormous difficulty getting jobs and healthcare. Many of China's 12 million blind people can only take jobs as blind masseurs at special blind massage parlours.

Disabled Chinese are sometimes still referred to as "can fei", which basically means "useless cripple", although there have been efforts to have disabled people referred by the direct translation "can ji ren".

Communist ideologues keen to promote China as a nation of healthy strong model workers and farmers during the era of Mao Zedong spent a lot of time reinforcing prejudices. Disabled people were not allowed to marry and forced sterilisation and selective abortion were common.

In May an official guide for Olympic volunteers had to be rewritten after it characterised the disabled as "stubborn and controlling" and "unsocial and introspective". While the shocking references were attributed to a translation error the Chinese version was pretty similar in effect.

However, Irish Paralympians, many of whom are visiting for a second time after various acclimatisation trips, say that great advances have been made even in the last few years in making the city easier to negotiate. This is the result of a three-year programme of upgrading access.

Among the efforts being made to welcome disabled athletes has been a lifting of a ban on guide dogs in Beijing for the two months around the Olympics and Paralympics, although blind athletes need special authorisation to bring their guide dogs.

The May earthquake in Sichuan, which killed upwards of 80,000 people, left many thousands of people maimed, as rescuers were often forced to carry out quick amputations to rescue people from the rubble.

Parents of children who lost limbs in the quake fear they will not now be allowed to take the college entrance examination, because students must pass a medical examination first which often bars disabled people from entry.

One disabled webizen, who wrote under the nom de plume Hai Xiao Beiyi, addressed an open question to the premier Wen Jiabao. "What can China's 20 million poor disabled people do? Why can our country's good policies not be put into effect? Why can disabled people not be given money in a direct way. There are many disabled people who are willing to be independent and self-reliant and to reduce the burden on their families. But when they set up a stall, some urban officials drive them out, even insult them. Why do they do this?" he wrote.

One well-known public figure who is disabled is Deng Pufang, the son of the former supreme leader of China, the late Deng Xiaoping. He was paralysed after being thrown from a window during the Cultural Revolution.

He is now president of the China Disabled Persons' Federation. Deng believes that the success of the Paralympic Games would help boost China's disabled people and contribute greatly to the development of the world Paralympic movement.