China's Disabled Struggle for Better Opportunities Advocates Spotlight the Need for Jobs and Improved Living Conditions

Article excerpt

THE last thing Bao Juan wants to do is go home.

A graduate of Beijing University from Inner Mongolia, Miss Bao knows the battered wheelchair she relies on to move around will make it harder to beat tough competition for jobs in the Chinese capital.

But Bao (in her mid-20s), hopes her prestigious economics degree will pay off and keep her from returning to her small hometown, where life can be bleak for Chinese with disabilities.

"There is no easy way for us," she says. "We want to work in the big cities, because they are better for people like me. But many students want to work here, so for the handicapped, it's more difficult."

In the past year, China's neglected people with disabilities have gained a spotlight through the advocacy of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping's eldest son, Deng Pufang, who also uses a wheelchair.

As head of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, Mr. Deng has promoted the cause of China's physically and mentally disabled at home and at conferences around the world.

In effect, though, 51 million disabled Chinese, the world's largest population of people with disabilities, often suffer social isolation and harassment that economic reforms and better living standards are unlikely to alleviate soon, Chinese and Western observers say. In China, 1 out of 6 families has a disabled member, and these represent about 5 percent of the total population.

"Having a handicapped child is more of a stigma in China than in the West, where there is a higher level of education and less superstition and where parents can organize themselves," says Gotthard Oblau, an official with Amity Foundation, which runs programs for the disabled in China.

"Usually people are isolated in China if {they} have a handicapped child," Mr. Oblau continues. "There is this tremendous instinctive embarrassment, which leads to isolation."

Social disgrace makes it difficult for disabled people to become part of mainstream life, especially in rural areas. Indeed, many children born with disabilities are abandoned to die or taken to orphanages, where negligence is widespread and mortality rates are high.

At one orphanage in Jiangsu province, one-third of the 80 children living there are handicapped, Oblau says. "They may start with physical handicaps, and because they get no stimulation, they develop mental handicaps," he says. "So they just doze their days away. It's devastating."

Deng Pufang's federation maintains that life for the disabled will improve with the better livelihoods generated by market-style reforms. At conferences held earlier this year, the association estimated that more than half the urban disabled are employed, many in more than 40,000 welfare enterprises established for them.

Special schools are on the rise, and the organization is promoting a quota system under which each state enterprise will have to hire a certain number of disabled workers. …