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