Disabled Groups Say Little has Changed in China

China's stated aim is to hold a "humanistic Olympics" that includes welcoming the disabled to the games. Some disabled groups, though, have found little change in the prejudice they face. Others say there is little room to participate and contribute.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This summer's Beijing Olympics will be followed by the Paralympics. Organizers have promised a spectacle full of humanitarian spirit and an inclusive attitude towards the physically disabled. Advocates are hoping the games themselves will foster increased tolerance and understanding in society at large.

But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, they're also realistic about just how much the games can change China.

ANTHONY KUHN: A hard rain is falling on Dashalar Street as workers spruce up the old commercial district ahead of the Olympics. There's an old arcade whose dark recesses conjure up the ghosts of Peking opera singers, bodyguards and prostitutes who frequented the area in pre-communist days. Upstairs, is a theater for pi ying xi, a play using flat puppets to cast shadows on a screen.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: The puppeteers are all pocket-sized people, as some Chinese with dwarfism call themselves. One of them is Wu Xiaoli(ph) who organized the group as an offshoot of an NGO she created to advocate for people with dwarfism. She has capitalized on her fame to become an Olympic smile volunteer.

Ms. WU XIAOLI (Puppeteer): (Through translator) I really wanted to be an Olympic volunteer but there are many requirements including foreign language abilities that I couldn't meet. Then, by chance, I saw a newspaper ad looking for smile volunteers. I thought, that's something I can do.

KUHM: She's now a smile volunteer, helping to hand out information to visitors and smile at them. Wu says that she's confident that the Paralympics will boost support for Chinese with disabilities. But she notes that pocket-sized people still face great difficulties in finding spouses, medical care, and jobs.

Ms. WU: (Through translator) Many Chinese companies have an unwritten rule that women they hire must be at least 5-foot-3-inches tall and a man, 5-foot-7. Most of us are 4-foot-3 or less. I'm only 3-foot-6, so it's very hard for us to find employment.

KUHN: Wu says China's government is trying to help disabled people. But good intentions sometimes go awry as in the case of an official handbook: it counseled Olympics how to assist disabled people. One passage instructed volunteers, never stare at their disfigurement. A patronizing or condescending attitude will be easily sensed by them, even for a brain-damaged patient. Olympic organizers later apologized for the handbook after disabled groups took offense.

(Soundbite of people talking)

KUHN: Near Beijing's Forbidden City, the sounds of play and laughter float over the walls of a courtyard. Students at the Hui Ling Community Center for the Mentality Disabled are here to learn art, music, and independent living skills. Hui Ling is Chinese for wise soul. The center's founder, Meng Weina, has struggled to achieve success. Some neighbors still feel that Hui Ling students are too noisy or cause them to lose face.

Ms. MENG WEINA (Founder, Hui Ling Community Center for the Mentality Disabled): (Through translator) They don't think we should be in the community. They think we should be in the countryside, locked up in a big building behind a high wall. They feel that we disturb their lives.

KUHN: Last fall, a hundred Hui Ling students went to watch the Special Olympics for mentality disabled people in Shanghai. On the way to one event, they were suddenly surrounded by scores of police and student volunteers who tried to lead them away.

Ms. MENG: (Through translator) The police said, you don't have tickets, what are you doing here? I said, we weren't trying to break into the event. We were just going to celebrate outside. They said, that's not allowed, that we were blocking traffic and could be subject to arrest.

KUHN: Hui Ling students are a noisy and free-wheeling bunch, Meng says, and they don't fit into the government's script for orderly public events where vetted crowds shout government-approved cheers.

Ms. MENG: (Through translator) We are celebrating our own athletic events with a happiness that comes from the bottom of our hearts, but the government is afraid of us for ideological and political reasons. Actually, we are a constructive force in a society.

KUHN: Meng says that China needs a fundamental change in social attitudes. People must recognize that what disabled people need is not charity but equal rights.

Ms. MENG: (Through translator) People don't see this from the angle of human rights, the right to survive, to be educated, and employed. It's as if we can help these people if we have enough money. But if not, then we don't have to.

KUHN: Meng's experience suggests that it will be far easier for the Olympics to upgrade China's urban infrastructure than to reshape its social attitudes.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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