Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

For most of the Chinese, the Paralympics was an eye opener in terms of seeing the ability of athletes with disabilities to push themselves physically and mentally.

Seeing amputees, those with vision impairments, and those in wheelchairs swim, run, play basketball, rugby, and lift weights forced the public to see them in a new light.

But will this change in perception be a lasting legacy?

Li Jia thinks so.

In his late 40s, Li was diagnosed with polio when he was three months old and lost the use of his legs.

Speaking with very good English after 20 years of study, Li credits the love of his friends and family for helping him along every step of the way.

He recalls when he was young, his classmates would literally carry him on their backs so he would make it to school since at that time there were almost no accessible facilities.

And because of everyone pitching in, Li managed to graduate from high school but was practically barred from trying to get into university, as he says, "there was no chance for people with disabilities."

His father told Li he had two options: Either repair shoes on the street, or learn English.

Probably because he didn't want to lose face, Li chose the latter, saying for him it was the only option.

Today he works for a joint venture called Capital Club, reporting to a French boss who hires him to translate documents into Chinese and English. And because of the nature of his work, Li is able to work from home.

"Working at home is good for people with disabilities," he explains, dressed in a red and gold T-shirt and grey slacks. "It is inconvenient for people with disabilities to move around even with the help of a wheelchair and even with an accessible environment."

Li admits he hardly goes outside his home. "It takes a longer time to exercise more power to finish your trip even when you have a friendly environment," he says. "Moving a wheelchair isn't as easy as walking."

As a result, he depends a lot on his sister and friends to help him with shopping and getting things he needs. He tries to laugh at his being used to being dependent on others.

But then he pauses and puts his hand on his face, perhaps overwhelmed by the truth of his words.

"For almost 20 years I didn't take the bus..." he says.

Nevertheless, he thinks the Paralympics has significantly improved for people with disabilities in terms of acceptance and awareness.

"If people are aware of our difficulties and then try to help you, then that's OK," he says. "We're not as well developed as America or Europe in terms of accessible environments. But if you have the awareness of disabilities, you can offer to help us. Now that's big, big progress."

He says he's met other people with disabilities from other parts of the world. For example a woman from the UK tells him that she has a pension so she doesn't have to work.

"But here in China it's different. We have to work to support ourselves," he says. "China wants people to be more self-reliant, more self-esteem, more self-dignity."

Nevertheless, the father of an eight-year-old son says there is still a kind of unspoken discrimination.

"Twenty years ago, when people with disabilities walked down the street, some boys would run after you and call you bad names," Li recalls. "Now there's no discrimination like this... children are taught to treat people equally. But in their mind there is discrimination when people like me try to find jobs."

His optimism is mixed with reality, believing that while China has progressed greatly, there's still much farther to go.

No comments: