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Paralympics Changing Attitudes In China

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Beijing is now host to the more than 4000 athletes who are taking part in this year's Paralympic Games. But these games are now a 'must' for Olympic host cities, so are Chinese attitudes to disability really changing?

Having just organised the 29th Summer Olympic Games, Beijing is now host to the more than 4000 athletes who are taking part in this year's Paralympic Games, which run from 6 to 17 September.

No less than 60 million euros has been spent by the Chinese authorities on making public transport and tourist attractions accessible for the disabled. It's money well spent, but China's own 83 million disabled people no doubt find it more important not to be discriminated against any more by the rest of society, or to be stared at as if they were circus freaks.

Communist discrimination
In the days of Chairman Mao, the Communist party wanted nothing to do and to do nothing with the country's disabled population. A Communist ‘utopia' required strong, healthy citizens. Forced sterilisation was common and marriages between two disabled people were banned.

In the early 1990s, several laws were introduced to improve the position of the disabled, but they have had little practical effect. Director Li Caimao of the Beijing Municipal Committee for the Disabled, who was left paralysed by polio, says, "Yes, there is discrimination. People's attitudes are a problem, but maybe we did not work hard enough to change them".

Attitude problem
Earlier this year it became apparent that this attitude problem wasn't restricted to the average Chinese man or women in the street but was also shared by at least some elements within the Paralympics organising committee. A handbook for volunteers included the following warning: "Some physically disabled people are isolated, anti-social and withdraw. They are stubborn and want to be in control... they are defensive and have a strong sense of inferiority".

The author also noted that volunteers should take into account that disabled people are hypersensitive to being called crippled or paralysed, "even if you are joking".

As soon as the text of the handbook was made public the organisation revised its website and modified the printed version. Because of prevailing social attitudes towards the disabled, the Paralympics may prove to be a bigger challenge than last month's Olympic Games, particularly in terms of testing Chinese attitudes. The number of volunteers for these games, for example, totals 44,000 - that's a significant reduction on the number who helped out at the Olympics, although it should be noted that the number of participating athletes is also significantly smaller and this may well explain the difference.

However, Dutch participants in the Paralympics have nothing but praise for those volunteers they have come into contact with. Wheelchair tennis player Maikel Scheffers, who ranks sixth in the world, feels they are well trained:

"Upon arrival at the airport, things went more or less as you might expect, before you had a had a chance to bend over and get pick up your bag for yourself, volunteers had already put it on a trolley. But in the Paralympic village, at the tennis courts and at our hotel, the volunteers are really very good."

But wheelchair basketball player Patries Boekhoorn had a number of less pleasant experiences. It started rightaway at the airport, where she was followed by some 20 ‘helpful' Chinese people after she paid a visit to the lavatory. It was almost frightening, she says. There was no escaping their assistance, even on public transport.

"Travelling on the underground railway is no problem, apart from the fact that those Chinese are continuously breathing down your neck, afraid that you will not be able to cope on your own."On the other hand, Patries Boekhoorn found a ride in a special wheelchair taxi extremely comical. It took the driver nearly a quarter of an hour to fix a special wheelchair ramp to his taxi, whereas Patries Boekhoorn usually has no problem getting out of her wheelchair and into a taxi seat.

"I'd never experienced something like that. I'd not seen the like of it before. But the differences between countries are quite marked. For example, I once took part in a tournament where we had to crawl into a bus because no modifications had been made at all. But here [in Beijing], it is the total opposite".
More understanding
Lu Shiming, Deputy Chair of the Chinese Paralympic Committee, believes these games will lead to more understanding for, and knowledge about disabled people. Tennis player Maikel Scheffers shares that sentiment:

"Everyone's now adjusted to idea of 4000 athletes with a disability being here. So, these people will deal with that differently than before. China has a disabled community of 83 million people - if you take a look at how they can organise the Paralympic Games, then I think they can learn a lot of positive things from that. Top athletes too."

by RNW correspondent Karen Meirik (edited version) of Radio Netherlands, Copyright.

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