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Disabled Chinese Fight for Equal Rights Despite Paralympic Glory

BEIJING — As Li Xiang strapped himself into a seat mounted atop a single ski and raced down the snowy slope, he reveled in the feeling of freedom that had become all too rare after a car accident required him to use a wheelchair as a child.

Li, a 24-year-old Alpine skier competing for China in the Paralympic Winter Games, skis to win. But to him, it is also a way to escape the discrimination that he says he often encounters as a person with disabilities in China.

“Talking about fairness might sound good, but in reality there’s no such thing as fairness in society,” Li said in a telephone interview before his race this week.

China has dominated the podium at this year’s Paralympic Games in Beijing, and the Chinese government has held up the success of the country’s athletes as a symbol of its efforts to advance the rights of people with disabilities. But outside the Paralympics competition venues, life can still be very difficult for disabled people, and their career opportunities remain limited.

While China has made progress in some areas, such as strengthening anti-discrimination laws and mandating equal access to employment and education, hardships can still be especially acute.

Activists have pushed for greater rights like the improvement of barrier-free facilities and legal reforms to address the needs of the more than 85 million people with disabilities in the country.

But they have faced resistance at times from a centralized government and state-funded Chinese institutions, which still refer to disabilities as diseases in most official documents, and from a public that remains largely ignorant about the challenges they face.

Li says that he has experienced too many indignities to count, but one memory sticks out. After a training session, he returned to his dormitory building to find the elevator broken. It was a snowy winter evening, he had no way to contact his teammates, and the facility was not wheelchair accessible. After waiting for two hours, Li abandoned his wheelchair out of desperation and crawled up the stairs on his hands and knees “like a dog,” he said.

Even China’s most decorated Paralympians have faced discrimination.

Blind at birth, Ping Yali was working at a rubber factory in Beijing in the early 1980s when local sports officials approached her about training in the government-run sports system. She agreed, and went on to represent China in long jump at the 1984 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles. There, she became the first Paralympic athlete to win a gold medal for China.

Back in China, Ping was hailed as a national hero and her gold medal was placed in the Beijing Olympic Museum. After her victory, she hoped to ride the wave of success, as Olympians had in retirement, by becoming an administrator at a provincial sports bureau or a coach on a local sports team.

But the Chinese government, which spends far less on training athletes for the Paralympics than it does for those in the Olympics, offered scant support, and no such opportunities came up. Ping went back to working in factories, but was later laid off. Eventually, she took a job as a masseuse in a massage parlor, a low-paid line of work that is a common occupation for the blind and visually impaired in China.

At one point, Ping said, she could afford to buy only a bottle of water each day. Years later, Ping received an invitation from Chinese officials to be a torchbearer at the opening ceremony in Beijing of the Summer Games in 2008. She was honored to have been invited, she said, but was still disappointed by the lack of support from the government for Paralympic athletes.

“I’ve been struggling to survive in this world,” Ping, who has since retired, said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Beijing. “I did not receive the same glory and treatment as the able-bodied Olympians did.”

Still, China promotes the progress it has made. Aside from strengthening its laws aimed at bolstering the rights for the disabled, across the country there have been efforts to make buildings more accessible. The government has also begun offering college entrance exams in Braille. Disabled people have also been allocated additional support from the government’s poverty alleviation programs.

For a select few, China’s growing investment in the Paralympics has also created entirely new opportunities.

“Doing sports has changed my life,” Ji Lijia, a 19-year-old Chinese snowboarder who lost his left arm when he was a child, said after he won a gold medal at the Paralympics on Monday at one of the competition venues in the northern Chinese city of Zhangjiakou, outside Beijing. “I hope that I can inspire more disabled people to do sports and encourage them to walk out of their homes,” he said.

But some activists say that the government is still not doing enough to ensure that people with disabilities have equitable access to basic resources, and that the majority of the Chinese public still lacks basic awareness of the challenges faced by disabled people.

Some activists say that the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws is weak. Little work is being done to fight the deep-seated stigma in a society that historically referred to disabled people as canji, characters that mean “handicapped” and “disease,” and canfei, characters that mean “handicapped” and “useless.” The social and economic cost of living with disabilities is seen as so great that babies with such challenges are often abandoned by their parents.

Some experts and activists have raised concerns about the government’s depiction of Chinese Paralympians as grateful beneficiaries of the state’s largess. At these Games, Chinese state media outlets were once again trumpeting the success of the country’s athletes, who have won 47 medals, including 14 gold, as a mark of the government’s strong support for people with disabilities.

On Monday, the state-run China Daily newspaper cited the “vigorous development” of sports programs for disabled people as a reflection of China’s “people-centered development philosophy and insistence on helping the weak.”

The propaganda has rung hollow for some who say that real breakthroughs will require changing the prevailing attitudes within China.

They have pointed to the recent example of Li Duan, a 43-year-old visually impaired triple jump track athlete. At the opening ceremony of the Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing on March 4, Li struggled for over 30 seconds on live television to light the Olympic cauldron. When he finally managed to do so, cheers erupted from the stadium. In Chinese state media reports and on social media, commentators praised Li’s persistence as inspirational.

Some activists and people with disabilities, however, were disappointed by the spectacle. To them, the ceremony’s organizers should have designed a lighting ritual that accommodated Li’s visual impairment instead of highlighting it by creating an obstacle that he had to overcome.

“We shouldn’t see disabilities as flaws,; we should see it as an identity,” said Wu Di, a Ph.D. student who specializes in disability rights at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We should change society — not expect people with disabilities to change themselves.”

Changing the mind-set of society may sound daunting, but the solution might be simpler than it appears, said Li, the Paralympic Alpine skier.

“The most important thing is empathy,” Li said after his race on Thursday. “That is, to make ordinary people be more willing to think in the shoes of people with disabilities.”

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