Beijing Welcomes The Disabled as China Never Has

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 6, 2008

BEIJING -- In recent weeks, Beijing's brand-new airport has been able to give a special welcome to thousands of Paralympic athletes from around the world because the government spent $1.7 million to lower washbasins and handrails, add Braille signs and transform 214 toilets into the accessible variety.

But in south Beijing, a former coal miner needs a nurse to help push him up a too-steep ramp leading to his apartment building. He has trouble boarding taxis and buses and finding restaurants without steps. He can't use a public toilet.

China is trumpeting the Paralympics as a way to improve awareness and better integrate its more than 83 million disabled citizens, almost a million of whom live in Beijing. But the reality is that China's disabled are largely invisible, dissuaded from going out in public by a lack of physical access, a deficit of jobs and routine discrimination.

"I need someone to lift me into a taxi and fold the wheelchair, or carry me on his back onto a bus," said Zhi Fumao, 48, whose legs were paralyzed in a mining accident a few years ago. "Public toilets have no arm rests; I can't squat."

Every city in the world could improve its facilities for the disabled, but in China, a traditional respect for the elderly and the weak has been eroded by Communist political campaigns and an overall lack of awareness of civil rights, according to advocates for the disabled.

In interviews with scores of people disabled by on-the-job accidents, car accidents, and diseases that in other countries would be curable, most said there was little they could do.

"Chinese government and society tends to treat the disabled with condescension, treating them like a charity case instead of giving them equal respect," said Meng Weina, head of the Beijing-based Huiling Community Service for the Mentally Disabled. "The big picture in China is, not only the disabled but even ordinary people lack civil rights."

Meng blamed the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, which ruptured family ties and smashed Confucian traditions. "After the liberation of China, the government launched too many movements which broke people's harmonious relationships," she said. "People don't have enough morality. The reform of China should restore those lost parts of our culture."

China has made progress, including providing handicapped-accessible buses; adding wheelchairs at park entrances; installing elevators in the Forbidden City, the palace of the former emperors; and building miles of bumpy, raised-patterned sidewalks for the blind. Conditions in Beijing are far better than in provincial cities and rural areas.

But officials have failed at enforcing the rules and creating public awareness. As a result, sidewalks for the blind are sometimes blocked or in places of limited value. Wheelchair ramps are not built long and low according to standards but short and steep, in order to save money. Restaurants regularly turn away those with physical deformities, advocates said.

"Disabled people are afraid to go out because people mock them. 'The way you look, how come you still go out?' they say," said Wu Runling, whose legs became deformed after he contracted a virus as a child. "Many parks now offer wheelchairs, but it's just for show. If you want to use them, there is no air in the tire or there is only one wheelchair and two or three of you."

Guide dogs, which cost more than $10,000, and artificial limbs, which run upwards of $1,400, remain prohibitively expensive to most Chinese. Only six people and an arts association on the mainland own guide dogs, said Guo Xinglin, a trainer at the four-year-old China Guide Dog Training Center in Dalian, the only one of its kind. "It is a problem of Chinese law. No law allows the guide dogs to enter public places," he said.

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