Can the Paralympic Games Give China's Disabled a Boost?

Article excerpt

As China counts down to the much-hyped 2008 Summer Olympics, a quieter effort is under way to prepare for its sister event, the Paralympics.

The Paralympics offer China an equal, if not a greater, chance of national sporting glory than the main event: Its athletes swept the medals table at Athens 2004. Around 4,000 athletes from 150 countries are expected to attend the games, to be held next September after the Olympics end in August. Organizers are promising to stage another world-class sporting spectacular on a par with the regular games.

The government is also holding out the prospect of improved access to public facilities for Beijing's large - but mostly invisible - physically disabled population.

Authorities face an uphill task, though, in refitting Beijing's stations, museums, banks, and malls for the disabled and elderly. Simply crossing the road in a city fretted with stair-only footbridges and underpasses is virtually impossible in a wheelchair.

Perhaps even harder, say advocates for the disabled, is shifting attitudes and curbing discrimination toward an estimated 83 million Chinese living with various disabilities.

Installing ramps and wheelchair-friendly doors is welcome, but needs to be matched by broader social acceptance of people who are often hidden from view, either by choice or necessity.

"Disabled people don't want to go outside, because they think ordinary people will be shocked. But if we go out, then people will get used to us," says Wen Jun, a paraplegic who runs an online disabilities network. "By going out, we say to the government that we're here and we need more facilities."

A citywide effort to welcome disabled

China's action plan lists dozens of projects designed to clear a path for wheelchair users and other handicapped people by the end of 2007, including Olympics venues and tourist sites. A new sports training center for China's disabled athletes is also under construction.

Under China's current building regulations, developers are required to install elevators and access ramps in new and renovated buildings of six floors or higher. These rules, which aren't always enforced, predate the current spurt of Olympics-related construction. Wheelchair users say facilities are improving in cities like Beijing, but complain that getting around is tough, particularly if you can't afford to take taxis.

One problem is Beijing's subway system, which is being extended ahead of the Olympics. New subway stations will have elevators, but wheelchair users complain that older stops are impassable. One disabled woman is now trying to sue district officials for not installing an elevator at her local station, according to her lawyer, Li Fangping.

In 2005, Beijing was among 12 cities in China praised by authorities as an exemplar of disabled access. A distinct feature of its sidewalks is a strip of raised concrete slats designed for blind people using walking aids. However, cars and bicycles parked on sidewalks obstruct the slats, limiting their usefulness. …