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Beijing’s Paralympics shine a light on the need for support for people living with disability

David Dollar's picture

Wheelchair rugby, also known as "murder ball".

Hosting the Paralympics in Beijing is causing me and many other residents to focus on the amazing things that disabled persons can do, rather than on what they cannot do because of disability. Watching wheelchair rugby in person and wheelchair basketball on TV, it’s impossible not to be impressed by these athletes’ incredible fitness and skill.

Seeing the athletes on their free time in markets, restaurants, buses, and taxis also reminds us that Beijing is not a very easy city for people with disabilities. Stairs everywhere with few ramps; poor arrangements on public transportation. None of this is surprising in a developing country. Fortunately it’s changing, and I think that the Paralympics are providing a good impetus. For the first time I have seen a kneeling bus in Beijing that facilitates access for people in wheelchairs, and wheelchair-friendly taxis. I read in the paper that the main section of the Great Wall here, Badaling, now has an elevator to make it easier to climb to and see the wall up close. Last week I saw the spectacular “5000 Years of Chinese Memory” collection of art at the new Beijing capital museum and was pleased to see that the museum catered well to people with disabilities.

The Chinese Government has, in recent years, enacted a variety of new laws including the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons, Regulations on the Education of Persons with Disabilities, and the Regulations on Employment of Persons with Disabilities. On paper, these provide impressive protections of the rights of China’s estimated 83 million people with disabilities. Of course, getting it right on paper is just a start.

A lot needs to be done to raise people’s consciousness, improve services, and get rid of discrimination. This is an area where I think civil society groups can play an especially important role. I would like to highlight two impressive civil society organizations (CSOs) that I have encountered in recent years, one international and one domestic.

The international CSO is Braille without Borders. I learned about it when the World Bank received a Friendship Award together with other international experts and activists. One was chosen to speak as a representative of the foreign friends, alongside China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao. Sabriye Tenberken is a visually impaired German woman who traveled to Tibet a number of years back and ended up settling there. She developed the first Tibetan Braille script and started the CSO that provides education, with a focus on jobs and skills, to people with visual impairment. What I particularly remember from her speech was her effort to help blind children understand that there were many things that they could do in life to be productive and part of the economy and society. She was so successful with one boy that he told her his dream was to drive a taxi (which unfortunately he was not going to be able to do). But after a while he came back to her and said that his dream now was to own a taxi company!

Founders of the Bo Ai School for Deaf celebrate their award from China Development Marketplace in 2006.
The domestic CSO that I want to mention is the Bo Ai School for the Deaf in Jiujiang, a private, non-profit outfit. I have not yet had a chance to visit their facility. But they were one of the winners in the China Development Marketplace that we sponsored in 2006–an effort to raise money from private donations to fund small grants in the $30,000 range for domestic CSOs. The 100 finalist organizations came to Beijing for a colorful exhibition and award ceremony. The Bo Ai School is unusual in being private and run by deaf teachers. Their representatives cried with happiness when they were announced as a winner. They used their small grant to train teachers, develop sign language training material, and create an information exchange and website to help people with hearing impairment to find jobs. The school’s founder died of cancer in 2007, but the other teachers carry on the work of the school.

We are organizing a second China Development Marketplace to provide small-scale grants to CSOs. Eleven of the 100 finalists are CSOs working with people with disabilities. All the finalists will present their activities at a major exhibition in Beijing, October 21-22. We have also added a special window for grants to projects in the earthquake-affected areas. So stay tuned for more on the development of civil society in China.

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