The invisible 83 million
The recently concluded Paralympic Games in Beijing have brought some much needed attention to China's disabled community, whose
members lead largely invisible lives on the margins of a society where strong negative attitudes towards disability persist. ANANTH KRISHNAN
WHEN I BOUGHT AIR-CONDITIONERS, MY NEIGHBOURS SAID, `HOW DARE YOU WASTE ENERGY ON THESE KINDS OF PEOPLE?' GAO YA LI
When Gao Ya Li opened one of Shanghai's first ever schools for children with Cerebral Palsy (CP), her neighbors were puzzled. "Why on earth would you open a school for the can fei (the useless)?" they asked.
Gao's only child was born with CP. Shortly after Jun was born, her husband left her. Every doctor she visited prescribed long lists of medicines and expensive acupuncture therapies to help "cure" her son. After years of ineffective treatment, she finally came to the conclusion that none of those doctors knew anything at all about her son's condition.
Gao traveled the length and breadth of China, looking for help. She traveled to Beijing and Changchun in the northeast, to Nanjing and Wuhan. But after years of searching, Gao realized the help she was looking for was not to be found in China. So Gao started her own school.
Her journey reflects the struggle people with disabilities still face in China. In the last decade, the Chinese Government has passed a number of laws to address the issue. The most important one, the 1990 law, on the Protection of Disabled Persons, for the first time legally guaranteed protection for people with disabilities, providing them with state assistance, healthcare and employment.
In June, China ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and a law passed in July called for giving every disabled Chinese citizen "access to rehabilitation services by 2015."
Long overdue laws
People with disabilities still struggle for acceptance in society.
The laws are long overdue in a society that has, historically, had little time for its disabled members. But the persistence of negative social attitudes has limited the impact of state legislations. Pejorative terms like can fei are still in use; but undoubtedly the most telling reflection of the status of China's disabled population is their invisibility.
"The hardest thing, without doubt, is leaving the house and going out on the street," says Pilar Tan, a Shanghai businesswoman who adopted an orphan with CP from Shaanxi province. "When my son came to Shanghai, people on the street would look at him as if he was from a circus. On the street, people would stop and stare. They would even walk closer for a better look! They would not care what I, as a mother, would think. I have been driven to screaming at people to look away."
Pilar enrolled her son at Gao's school, where he studies along with 45 other children who have a range of mental disabilities like CP and Down Syndrome. Gao's school, like the community it works for, is hard to find. Tucked away in Gubei in Shanghai's western city limits, the school is nestled in a maze of apartment buildings. When the school opened in 1996, it was one of only five privately run special-needs schools in a city, which has a disabled population of 9,40,000, although in recent years, the local government has stepped up its efforts to increase access to education by setting up 'Sunshine homes' for special-needs children in every district.
"Earlier, there was so much ignorance," Gao says. "There was just no conception of improvement. If you were born disabled, you had no hope. China has always had a large disabled population, but for much of our history, no one has ever paid them any attention."
Gao faced a lot of resistance when she opened her school. "When I bought air-conditioners, my neighbors said, 'How dare you waste energy on these kinds of people?' There were a lot of suspicions in the community about what I was doing, but little by little, parents in the community began to pay attention."
A recent study into the lives of Shanghai's disabled community by Fudan University found that the biggest concern was unfriendly work environments - 65 percent of those surveyed in three Shanghai districts said they were unhappy with attitudes at the workplace.
The study also found that 30 percent of people surveyed said there had been no improvement in their living situations with regard to employability and social acceptance in the last five years. Twenty per cent said things had got worse, and half of the respondents said things had improved. A lack of employment opportunities was, by far, the biggest concern.
The situation in rural China is even worse - in fact, Shanghai is regarded as one of the better performing cities when it comes to providing welfare for people with disabilities. While the Chinese government has instituted a system of tax incentives for employers who hire people with disabilities, the consensus is that they do not seem to be working.
"The tax reductions have not really made any difference to hiring practices," Gao says. "Most companies are happier paying the extra money." Executives of local companies said in interviews they were happy to pay salaries to disabled employees whom they have on their books, but discouraged them from showing up as they feared their presence would have a negative impact on the work environment.
Ji Meibin, principal of a Government-run special-needs school in Shanghai, says that only "a handful" of his school's 2,000 students will get white-collar jobs. Some will be hired by neighborhood supermarkets, but most graduates will remain unemployed.
But, as the head of a government school, Ji is reluctant to be drawn on how well or not government policies have worked. "The fact is the government also gives 400 Yuan (US$ 58) a month in subsidies, as well as medical benefits," Ji says. "Attending our school is also free. The regulations are more than enough."
Ji's school has also developed a unique system to allow some of the children to earn some money while they attend classes. The school has an arrangement with a Shanghai-based soap manufacturer, which has the children working on packaging soap for one hour every day, in between their lessons.
But Gao says these solutions do not address the heart of the problem - a lack of visibility in society. That is why the Paralympics that recently concluded in Beijing are being viewed with such optimism by disabled rights campaigners like Gao, who believe they have the potential to leave a lasting impression on Chinese society.
The events in Beijing were well attended, exceeding most expectations, and state television channels extensively broadcast almost every event through the day. "There is no question people will be encouraged to see how brave the athletes are," Gao says. "It is a start but of course there still need to be many more opportunities for people with disabilities to join society."
Gao says the first thing she tells parents who enroll their children in her school is to take their children out on the street as often as possible. "I tell them, take your kids out to the park, to the shops, wherever you can, and however difficult it might be," Gao says. "Because that is the only way people will ever become used to us."