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China opening its eyes to the disabled

  • September 6, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

Paralympics shines spotlight on discrimination and neglect as Beijing launches ambitious program of improvements

BEIJING — Li Xinjing, a blind 31-year-old masseur, has heard rumours of a new campaign to help disabled people. But he doesn’t dare venture outside to find out if it’s true. He considers it still too dangerous for a blind man to walk in Beijing’s streets.

“I’m afraid to go out alone,” he says. Instead, he sits in a one-room apartment that he shares with three roommates inside a massage centre – one of the few sources of employment for the 12 million blind people in China.

For blind and disabled people, China’s streets can be frightening. Most traffic lights have no audio signal. The official pebbled paths for blind people on the sidewalk are often obstructed. Mr. Li would love to have a guide dog, but he can’t afford one and has never met anyone who has one. Wheelchair access can be equally difficult.

As a result, China’s 83 million disabled people are almost invisible, rarely seen in public. They have endured decades of discrimination and neglect in a society that had little tolerance for them.

As host city for the Paralympics that begins today, Beijing has launched an ambitious campaign to help disabled people. Wheelchair access has dramatically expanded. New transport options are being offered. Public awareness is improving. But there is still a long way to go, experts say.

“We are the most populous country in the world, and yet we seldom see disabled people in our cities,” a journalist wrote this week in Economic Observer, a leading Chinese newspaper.

“Six out of 100 people have disabilities, but most of them stay at home,” he noted. “Few taxis and buses can carry wheelchairs. We unconsciously lock the disabled people at home.”

Sam Sullivan, the mayor of Vancouver and himself a quadriplegic, noticed the same absence of disabled people in public places during a visit to China during the past two weeks. “I still don’t see disabled people in the streets,” he said in an interview in Beijing yesterday. “There are still a lot of access problems.”

Mr. Sullivan, who carried the torch yesterday on the final day of the Paralympics torch relay in Beijing, is convinced that the sporting event will make a huge difference in Chinese awareness of disabled people. The Paralympics is being promoted on state television every day, and officials have worked hard to improve wheelchair access, he noted.

With about 4,200 athletes from 148 countries competing at the Paralympics in Beijing over the next 11 days, this will be the biggest-ever gathering of disabled athletes. And with nearly 1.2 million tickets sold or given away, it could be the most-watched Paralympics in history.

“It’s amazing how China has embraced this so completely,” Mr. Sullivan said. “There will be profound changes over the next few years. … Sports heroes can really revolutionize the image of disabled people.”

In 1999, when Mr. Sullivan first visited China, his wheelchair was carried everywhere by five soldiers from the Chinese army because there was such poor access for disabled people at most buildings. But this year, he found special ramps for wheelchairs at the Forbidden City, many other tourist sites and many university buildings and restaurants, he said. “It’s like night and day.”

In the past seven years, Beijing has spent more than $80-million to improve access for disabled people, including more than 12,000 square metres of ramps and 3,200 metres of hand railings, along with a special fleet of taxis and buses.

Discrimination against disabled people, however, is still widespread. A survey of more than 3,400 disabled people last year found that 22 per cent had been rejected for jobs because of their physical disabilities. Quotas require 1.5 per cent of state-sector jobs to go to disabled people, but the quotas are often not enforced.

Even the improvements for the Paralympics are inadequate. The specially equipped taxis and buses are far too few for the one million disabled people who live in Beijing. The new rules will permit guide dogs on city buses – but only until the official end of the Paralympics period on Sept. 20.

Stereotypes and misconceptions about disabled people are still common. Chinese officials had to apologize after they distributed a manual to Olympic volunteers that described some disabled people as “unsocial and introspective” and “stubborn and controlling.” The manual was withdrawn and rewritten.

A newspaper in the western city of Xian reported yesterday that taxis and buses often refuse to pick up disabled passengers. It described how a woman in a wheelchair had sobbed in frustration after waiting an hour on the street. No taxi would stop for her. Another disabled woman, Han Wenhui, waited for 30 minutes before a taxi would stop for her. Fifteen taxis passed by without stopping, the newspaper reported.

Ms. Han recalled how she once waited an hour for a taxi because nobody was willing to take her. After that, she usually stayed at home.