Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Friday, 5 September 2008 14:17 UK

The challenges facing China's disabled

wheelchair user Jin Yi on Beijing's public transport system
Jin Yi can now travel on some public transport in Beijing
With the Paralympic Games about to get under way, the BBC's Michael Bristow looks at how life has changed in recent years for Chinese people with disabilities.

Wheelchair user Jin Yi's journey across Beijing by bus and subway shows just how seriously China is tackling disability issues.

Mr Jin, an Olympic volunteer, is able to travel on public transport with the help of ramps and lifts.

But he concedes that despite the improvements in accessibility, ordinary people's attitudes still need to change.

As in many countries, people with disabilities in China still face discrimination and prejudice that make daily life difficult.

Mr Jin can travel on Beijing's No 2 bus and the newly-opened subway line 10.

But not all Beijing's public transport network has facilities for those who need extra help, to say little of the cities, towns and villages in other parts of China.


Chinese Paralympic basketball player who plays in the Spanish league

'Little understanding'

As Mr Jin points out, there is also a bigger problem - people's attitudes towards the 82.7 million people with a disability in China.

The 44-year-old said that when he was younger he was told he could not go to university because of his disability.

Chinese wheelchair basketball coach Zhai Yongjun (L) rallies his players for a post-training session talk on September 2
China has entered more than 300 disabled athletes into the Games
"In the past, [people] couldn't understand us. They thought that a full stomach and watching TV was enough," said the man who taught himself English and now runs a catering company.

It is a theme taken up by Beijing resident Xin Ren, who lost the full use of his legs when he was 16 years old after contracting a disease that damaged his spine.

Now 28, he walks with the aid of crutches and occasionally has to use a wheelchair.

"Most people are not prejudiced, and don't look down on people with disabilities," said Mr Xin, who works as an assistant at a Beijing university.

"The biggest problem is that people have little understanding about disabilities."

The government seems aware of this problem, and has made a big effort to educate its citizens about how to talk to people with disabilities who will be in Beijing for the Paralympics.

One pamphlet advises locals to be helpful, but not too pushy. It also suggests they should be more sensitive to those with disabilities.

Officials say they are doing all they can to promote the rights of disabled people.

Limited options

At a press conference this week, Zhao Chunluan, director-general of Beijing Disabled Persons' Federation, said: "People with disabilities of course have undergone great development."

Great Britain's Daniel Crates ahead of the Paralympics
Four thousand athletes are taking part in the Paralympics
The federation is trying to make public places more accessible, and Mr Xin has been around the city to put them to the test.

"You can get into the majority of places that say they are wheelchair accessible, but there are still a few big places where you would think you could get into, but can't," he said.

But other problems do remain, according to Sophie Richardson, of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

"The Chinese government deserves praise for enacting laws and ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities," she said.

"But so far these protections have meant little to persons with disabilities and their advocates in China who struggle to promote their rights and, in particular, to fairly compete for employment," she added.

According to the rights group, 8.58 million employable people with a disability in China did not have jobs last year.

In some cases, even when they do have a job, people with disabilities are limited in what they can apply for. Blind people, for example, traditionally become masseuses.

But many want more options. As Mr Jin said: "We want to get involved in mainstream society."

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