Thoughts from my recent visit

Paralympics poised to open minds and doors in China When I lived in Shenyang 25 years ago, it was the […]

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Paralympics poised to open minds and doors in China

When I lived in Shenyang 25 years ago, it was the early years of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy, an ambitious plan to remake China to be modern and more open, including for citizens with disabilities. Deng was influenced by his son Pufang, a wheelchair user. In 1988, Deng Pufang established the China Disabled Persons Federation,, the organization which represents China’s 83 million people living with disabilities.

China is richer today, but the disability community has not modernized at the same pace. Twenty-five years ago few people had regular access to electricity. Today millions live in modern apartments furnished with advanced electronics and appliances. With the exception of such model individuals as Paralympics athletes or China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe performers, see the YouTube video:, Chinese with disabilities beg in public as they have for centuries, their stories of woe written in large characters on a piece of cardboard as they demonstrate their disability to passersby.

The coming of the Paralympics is changing China, as was evident on my visit in June. In preparation, Beijing has been making accessible accommodations, tourist attractions, and transportation facilities. A recent media blitz highlighted adaptations at the Forbidden City while the Beijing Paralympic Games website highlights other improvements

But behind this publicity lies the continuing challenges facing Chinese with disabilities. There are two key issues: accessible facilities and especially the cultural attitudes. In a June 19 article, The Economist Magazine “Limbering up for the games” described the measures being taken to increase security before and during the events in Bejing. The article states, “But other measures smack of overkill. Beggars and disabled people have been ordered, and in some cases forced, off the streets. Those from outside Beijing have been threatened with detention unless they go home until the games are over.” Read the complete article at:

China is still a developing country and most people live in rural villages and small cities. As television footage from the Sichuan earthquake showed, building construction standards need upgrading for all sectors of the country. Few streets have traffic controls, let alone signals or sidewalks designed to help persons with difficulty seeing, hearing, or walking. Elevators in most buildings are small and unreliable, when they are even available. For travelers, only the most expensive hotels will have the necessary facilities.

Nonetheless, intrepid travelers like Rosemary Ciotti of Arlington Virginia, who documented her 2004 trip in “Wheelchair Nomad: Beijing, China,”, are demanding changes in the tourism industry that hopefully will inspire modifications throughout China.

The Paralympics are expected to accelerate change. Jeff Burley, Adaptive Manager for Utah’s Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation and the Intermountain region manager of Professional Ski Instructors of America/Adaptive, wrote from his visits to Barcelona, Sydney, Athens and Beijing that accessibility improves dramatically in countries after they have hosted the Paralympics: “We have really enjoyed the trend of countries improving access following the Paralympic Games.” (“Travel and the Paralympic Movement,”

Chinese cultural attitudes toward disability can be complex. Many Chinese, especially successful urbanites, see disability as shameful. In contrast, though, people from impoverished rural areas see disability as a normal feature of human existence. When I show middle-class Chinese photos of my sister—she has cerebral palsy—they often pull a grave face and say to me, “A tragedy for your family,” then change the subject quickly. Their discomfort rests in traditional views of disability as an embarrassment: someone with cerebral palsy (and that person’s siblings) would find it difficult to marry, as few would be willing to marry into a family like mine. But when I meet workers from rural areas, their reaction is pragmatic and straight-forward and I often find myself answering questions about the practical, even intimate, details of my sister’s life, and hearing expressions of admiration for the high quality of her assistive technology devices.

Another issue is that in traditional culture independence and privacy are not valued highly. To be independent and private seems like a lonely way to live for many Chinese. Society is organized around the family, nicely illustrated for Americans through Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. This emphasis on the close-knit, nurturing family has implications for the development of disability rights and means that the movement in China will not mirror the evolution of the movement elsewhere. For example, Rosemary Ciotti’s daughter (a student in China when she visited) was dismayed at being publicly rebuked for not pushing her mother’s wheelchair around Beijing. Her mother’s desire to be independent was not understood by Beijing people, who saw only an unfilial daughter forcing her mother to struggle.

The recent controversy over the Beijing Paralympics volunteers’ guide suggests that the Paralympics are challenging Chinese assumptions about people with disabilities. International groups reacted with outrage at wording that described persons with disabilities as “isolated, unsocial, and introspective…stubborn and controlling … defensive and having a strong sense of inferiority” (Ashling O’Connor, “Disabled Groups Outraged by Beijing Snub,” The Times, May 27, 2008, Embarrassed at the gaffe, the Chinese Paralympic task force quickly revised the guide. Since then the newly-sensitized Beijing Organizing Committee, XXIX Olympiad Games (BOCOG) has increased publicity stressing China’s openness to the disability community.

In May when the country’s attention focused on earthquake rescues as the Olympic torch traversed China, Chinese Paralympic athletes became instant media stars. While Paralympians are not representative of the average person with a disability, it was a new idea for the Chinese public to connect images of persons seriously injured in the earthquake with the heroic images of athletes with disabilities being paraded by the BOCOG as an inspiration to the people of Sichuan.

The Paralympics will likely result in better facilities for international visitors as well as greater sensitivity to the needs of China’s own disability community. Isao Hokugo, president of Japan’s Paralympic Committee and chairman of the Japan Sports Association for the Disabled whose experience with the Games dates to 1994 remarked to reporters on his recent visit to Beijing that, “According to our experience the Paralympic Games produced a huge boost for the welfare of people with disabilities in the host country….It is not just the Games itself that creates an impact, but the years after the Games.”

If so, we can expect more doors to open in China, fulfilling early visions of a modern society inclusive of all.

Cui Xiaohuo, “Learning a Lesson from Japan’s Paralympians,” China Daily, June 6, 2008,

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