BEIJING // Visitors to Beijing for the 2008 Paralympics were wowed by the country's state-of-the-art paralympic training facilities and access for the disabled, from special ramps at the new airport to wheelchair lifts in subway stations and special buses and taxis for the handicapped.
But as the curtain came down on the Paralympics last week, China's disabled people continue to face daunting challenges. They remain invisible for the most part, kept out of sight by social discrimination, few educational or job opportunities and a lack of infrastructure to enable them to leave their communities. "There have been improvements, especially in some grand buildings, like hotels or the airport, but that doesn't make it easier for the disabled to get around," said Meng Weina, founder of Hui Ling, a Beijing non-governmental organisation that works with the mentally disabled.
"Providing necessary facilities in the community or even home is the key to solving this problem," she said. "But the reality is that there are few facilities in their community. How can the disabled go to other places when they can't even get downstairs?" An even bigger obstacle is how society views the disabled. "Disabled people stay at home because they're afraid about how society will look at them," said Yu Xiaolong, a disabled man who does foot painting in an underpass in the Jianwai section of Beijing. "Most of my [disabled] friends don't even come out."
Helen McCabe, a professor of special education at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, said many families in China tend to be overprotective. "If you don't have the family support that says you can go out and not be embarrassed, that's going to limit you, too," she said. "You're afraid you won't be accepted in society and maybe your family is afraid you won't be accepted, and so you don't go out so much. Parents love their kids and want the best for them, but if [the families] don't get support, it's hard for them."
Yu Haibo, founder of the Changchun Xinyu Volunteer Association, said: "A lot of parents want to protect their children. "Many disabled are used to family members taking care of them and so they have become over reliant." Ms Yu, who herself suffered from congenital fragile ossium as a child, and whose NGO promotes education and employment for the disabled, said this dependence had made it difficult for the disabled to find work.
China has been lauded for passing a spate of recent regulations aimed at improving the lives of disabled people, but the effect appears to be limited so far. "The Chinese government deserves praise for enacting laws and ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities," Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a news release on Sept 5. However, Ms Richardson went on to say: "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."
The China University of Political Science and Law carried out a survey of disabled people in 2007 and discovered that 22 per cent had been rejected for jobs because of their disabilities. Although the government has imposed a mandatory quota requiring that people with disabilities account for a minimum of 1.5 per cent of all employees of government departments, enterprises and institutions, there are few signs that the policy is working.
An amendment in April to the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons made it possible for blind people to bring guide dogs to public places, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. But Xinhua said that in all of China, only six people have trained seeing-eye dogs. Twenty dogs are being trained, but China has 12 million people with visual impairments. For decades, the disabled were rejected by universities, which claimed they could not accommodate disabled students. The disabled are theoretically no longer turned away, but interviews with students at six universities provided anecdotal evidence that there were no apparent handicapped students on those campuses.
"A lot of universities now accept the disabled, but not those who need assistance," Ms Yu said. "The average university has no facilities for the disabled." According to a report by the Chinese People's Consultative Conference, just 1.1 per cent of the disabled in China have college degrees compared to 5.5 per cent for the rest of the population. There are four universities offering majors in special education in a country with 83 million disabled, which means there is a shortage of trained teachers. In some school districts, there may only be one school that has special education classes.
"The schools may be far from the parents' home and so it's difficult to get them there every day," Ms McCabe said. "So if kids are not very independent, it becomes too difficult for the parents and they leave them home." Ms Meng said society is changing the way it views the disabled, but much more needs to be done. "Though their material needs are basically met, their mental needs are not," she said. "The disabled still can't have a normal life. They want to fall in love, they want to have the same equality that others enjoy, but it's difficult for them to do that. When it comes to the mental needs of the disabled, the common thinking is always like this: 'You're disabled, you can't do anything, what do you expect?'"
Ms McCabe said in the past the families of the disabled felt alone and helpless, but that this is changing. She said people can go to the internet now and get information and connect with other families and experts. "There's a feeling that 'I'm a member of a larger group'," she said. "Families are less alone than they used to be." The Five Project Inc, founded by Ms McCabe, promotes educational and vocational opportunities for children and adults with special education needs. Members in China have begun to organise outings, recently taking a group of 15 people with mental illness and autism to visit a museum in Nanjing.
"They were so excited because they were going with each other. I don't think those parents would have dared to go on their own," Ms McCabe said. " It's really amazing how limited some of their activities have been and how helpful it is to go out with people that understand you. "They should be members of society, and we hope activities like this will help people realise this." Observers said the Paralympics raised awareness of the disabled in China and made them feel more self-confident. However, further improvements will require a huge investment in time and money, and it is not yet certain that the government's commitment to the disabled will continue now that the Olympic spotlight has been turned off.