Page last updated at 05:29 GMT, Wednesday, 13 August 2008 06:29 UK

Paralympics boost for China's disabled

The Olympic Games will be followed by the Paralympics and, as the BBC's Jill McGivering reports from Kunming, if Chinese athletes perform well, it could help society address long-standing prejudice towards the disabled.

Paralympic hopeful Qian Hong-yan
Qian Hong-yan wants to make her parents proud with a Paralympic medal
The large public swimming pool is crowded with early morning swimmers.

Twelve-year-old Qian Hong-yan comes here twice a day. She lost both legs in a car accident when she was a child.

On land she is confined to a wheelchair, but once she is in the water her swimming is agile and fast.

Her ambition is to represent China in the Paralympics in 2012. If she could win a gold medal, she says, she would make her parents very proud.

Her coach, Li Ke-qiang, understands better than most. He lost an arm but took silver and bronze medals for China in Athens.

He says that when the Chinese public see disabled athletes succeed in the Olympics, that might really change their image of disabled people.

"In the past," he said, "people despised the disabled. They thought they were all beggars, just asking for money."

"But now, when they see disabled swimmers like these, they can see how hard they're driving themselves. And that's a start."

'Pushed aside'

A sense of pride and achievement is important for everyone, but especially for China's disabled.

Many say they feel totally rejected by family members and the community. They speak of being labelled a burden and even of being blamed for their disability.

Twenty-four-year-old Zou-ma
Zou-ma's accident had a devastating effect on her life

In a rehabilitation centre in Kunming was an attractive young woman called Zuo-ma. Now 24, she lost the use of her legs in a shooting accident at the age of 20 and uses a wheelchair.

The impact on her life was dramatic. Almost immediately after the accident, her husband decided to leave her, she said, and took their baby son with him. She felt so desperate, she tried to kill herself.

Now, four years later, talking about it quickly reduced her to tears.

Her story is not unusual.

Dr Rob Cheeley is the general director of "Bless China International", a non-governmental organisation that works with Yunnan's poor and with the disabled.

In under-developed and remote parts of China especially, he said, facilities for the disabled were minimal and social attitudes could be extremely harsh.

"The disabled are at the tail-end of society," he said. "They get what's left over. There are literally tens of thousands of people being pushed aside and kept in poverty."

"They can't go to school, they can't get married and they can't get a job. They're really social outcasts."

More compassionate

There are slow signs of progress.

Many in the Chinese government are now trying to provide more opportunities for the disabled, according to Dr Cheeley, and to challenge negative views.

A seamstress at 'Hearts and Hands'
Projects like 'Hearts and Hands' are rare in China

One project, set up six years ago, provides work for the deaf or those with other disabilities. Called "Hearts and Hands", it is a small, friendly but basic operation.

Rows of women sit at sewing machines and craft tables making items for export to the West, from aprons and tablecloths to mobile phone covers and make-up bags.

They are paid an average of about 800 yuan a month (about US$115, 57).

The manager, Susan Wang, says it would be extremely difficult for these women to find jobs anywhere else.

It is a start - but projects like this are still extremely rare, especially in China's poorer provinces.

The competition for opportunity and new wealth in China is fierce, and the disabled tend to be excluded.

But there is some trickledown effect. As Chinese society gets richer, it is starting to get a little more compassionate as well.

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