For Disabled Chinese Girl, An Uncertain Future Huang Meihua lost her legs when her school collapsed on her last May in the China earthquake. Now, she struggles with classmates gawking at her prosthetic legs. And she and her parents worry about where she'll attend classes when her temporary school closes.
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For Disabled Chinese Girl, An Uncertain Future

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For Disabled Chinese Girl, An Uncertain Future

For Disabled Chinese Girl, An Uncertain Future

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We're in Washington.


And I'm Melissa Block, reporting this week from Sichuan, China. I was here this time last year during the earthquake that left 90,000 people dead or missing. And I've come back to hear about what's changed in the year since. Well, today, I want to introduce you to a survivor, a 12-year-old girl who's inspired me with her bravery and her spirit. Her name is Huang Meihua, and she faces daunting obstacles. But let's listen to how she describes herself.

Ms. HUANG MEIHUA: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: First of all, I'm quite pretty, she says, with a dramatic flourish of her hand. I'm smart.

Ms. HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: I can make you laugh.

Ms. HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: If I listed all of my good qualities, she says, it would take more than three days and three nights.

Ms. HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Meihua has attitude and spunk, and she cracks jokes all the time. She has a pink plastic barrette in her hair. She's wearing a pink sweatshirt and sneakers and track pants that cover her beige resin prosthetic legs. Both of Meihua's legs are amputated above the knee. They were crushed when her school collapsed around her during the earthquake, and you can tell her injury makes her very self conscious. For one thing, she's inside while the rest of her schoolmates are out on the playground.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

BLOCK: They're having an athletic competition at their temporary school in Mianyang county. It's now home to hundreds of kids whose villages were destroyed.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BLOCK: But as the children egg each other on in a game of tug of war, Meihua sits in her wheelchair in a small room she shares with her parents. Meihua can't play tug of war and probably wouldn't be able to maneuver in to see the action, anyway. And there's what she calls the head-turning problem. She hates that the other kids stare at her in her wheelchair. So imagine this source of public embarrassment.

Ms. YAN XIAORONG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Her mother, Yan Xiaorong, has to wheel Meihua on the long walk to the communal squat toilet and then hold her up while she goes to the bathroom.

Ms. YAN: (Through translator) Earlier, when we were trying to use the bathroom, some older girls came in. They pretended they were there to clean the toilet, but they really just wanted gawk at her, to see how we do it.

BLOCK: So Meihua spends most of her time in their room, in one of the countless prefab barracks that you see all over the earthquake zone. There are two bunk beds, a couple of desks for tables, a burner where her mother stir fries their meals.

(Soundbite of sizzling)

BLOCK: There has been no official count of how many schools collapsed in the earthquake last year. Meihua's school was one of them, high up in the mountains in Beichuan County. Last May 12th, when the earthquake struck, most of the kids were outside. But Meihua was in her 5th grade classroom, working on a poster.

Ms. HUANG: (Through translator) My classroom shook a little bit, and we looked at each other. But we didn't think it was anything to worry about. Then the room shook again, and we shouted the monsters are coming. We started running, and my teacher was dragging me along behind, but she was pulling me so hard, I fell down. Then the stairs collapsed. I was buried underneath.

BLOCK: Meihua was trapped in the debris for several hours before she was pulled free.

Do you remember, Meihua, what you were thinking for those three or four hours that you were trapped?

Ms. HUANG: (Through translator) I was thinking my legs are fine. After I get out, I'm going to write an essay about this and get a good grade.

BLOCK: You were thinking you could tell you story and do a good job.

Ms. HUANG: (Through translator) Yeah, they always ask us to write about something unforgettable. So I was going to write about this.

BLOCK: Meihua's mountain village is so remote that it took six days before she was evacuated by helicopter. By the time she got to the hospital, her legs were badly infected.

Ms. HUANG: (Through translator) Doctors told me it was hopeless. They had to amputate, or I would die.

BLOCK: Meihua was in the hospital in Chengdu for eight months. She shows me photos of the many visitors who came to her beside, bringing balloons and teddy bears.

So there's a picture of you. You're in your hospital bed. You're surrounded by people in white coats. And who's this?

Ms. HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: A bedside visit from Wu Bongwo(ph) is a very big deal. He's one of the highest ranked Chinese officials. Meihua was even taken by train to Beijing for a star-studded concert. But now, after all the attention and high-profile visits, here she is at this temporary school, hours away from her home and her old friends. She and her family get financial support from volunteer groups, about $40 a month. The government has promised special subsidies for those severely injured in the earthquake, but when and how much, those are still unanswered questions. And it's not at all clear where Meihua will go from here when this temporary school shuts down at the end of the school year.

Ms. YAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Her mom says there's no way Meihua can go back to their village up in the mountains. It's too remote for too hard with a wheelchair. Disability access is a very new concept in China, and nonexistent in rural areas. The Chinese government paid for Meihua's medical care and for her prosthetic legs, but they're heavy and uncomfortable and she doesn't like to wear them.

Mr. HUANG SHEQIN: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: She fusses with her parents about that. They want her to wear the prosthetics and practice moving about with her walker.

Ms. YAN: (Through translator) I make her wear them every day. If she wears them every day, she'll get used to them and she'll be able to walk.

BLOCK: But Meihua thinks the walker draws even more attention to her handicap. She'll only use it in her room. It's hard to say how she'll get stronger. She doesn't get any physical therapy. Now Meihua was the family's shining hope. She's very bright, a good student. And before the earthquake, a lot of expectations were riding on her small shoulders.

Her parents are migrant workers. Her father only made it through the 9th grade. Her mother never went to school. They still want her to succeed, and her father, Huang Sheqin, says they worry about what will happen with her education.

Mr. HUANG SHEQIN: (Through translator) She's physically handicapped, but that doesn't mean she's mentally disabled. The most important thing for us is to find her a very good school.

BLOCK: You must be very proud of your daughter. She seems like a remarkable girl. What are your hopes for her, as you look forward? That she will…

Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) I just hope she can get a good education, and then find a good job, support herself, and be independent.

BLOCK: And 12-year-old Huang Meihua has big dreams. I'd like to get a PhD in math or science, she says. If not that, maybe music or computers, because I wouldn't need to stand up. Most of all, she'd love to be able to take care of her parents instead of having them take care of her.

SIEGEL: That's our co-host, Melissa Block. She's reporting all this week on the anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake.

NORRIS: And you can find photos of Meihua and her family, along with Melissa and Robert's reporting on the earthquake from last year. That's at

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