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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 07:09 GMT
Paralympic progress in China?

By Dame Tanni Grey Thompson
Inside Sport in Beijing

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson in Beijing
Inside Sport Beijing Special, BBC ONE, Wednesday 20 February, 2250-2330 GMT

I was last in Beijing just over two years ago - my first time in the country.

But with the Paralympics fast approaching, I recently revisited China with the BBC's Inside Sport programme to see whether access and attitudes had changed since I was last there.

I certainly noticed improvements in access, with a lot more lowered kerbs around the city and some walkways around Tiananmen Square which are a help.

Last time, there were a lot of people stopping and staring but there was not as much of that this time. That said, I did have some people pointing at me saying 'You play basketball'.

I know in the build-up to the Paralympics that the International Paralympic Committee and the Chinese organisers have worked hard to raise awareness of disabled sport in the country. It does seem to be working.

But the most emotional element of the trip was when I had the chance to speak to a group of disabled people, who explained how hard life in China is.

When I hear athletes in the UK complain about the Lottery funding they receive, in China the problems are about access to the things that we take for granted in Britain, like education.

"While China has so much to learn about including disabled people, their system for disabled people at the airport was something to behold"

The people I spoke to are hoping that having almost 4,500 disabled people in the city showing what they can do during the Paralympics will help improve understanding.

For me though, the nice surprise of the trip was coming back through Beijing airport.

Going through airports is always an interesting experience if you are a wheelchair user, and not always in a good way.

The usual panic of whether your bag will make it to the other end is nothing compared to the worry of whether your wheelchair will get there, whether it will turn up in one piece, be sliced in half (I have had that one) and what excuse the airline will use if they leave it somewhere.

My personal favourite was 'we didn't realise that you needed it'.

But there is so much more to it than that. Travelling through airports can be one of the most disabling things that I have ever experienced and most of it is because the 'rules' that either airlines or airports have take control away from disabled people.

A favourite for airports is removing day chairs at check-in.

The idea is it will 'guarantee' that your chair will make it on to the plane, and that it will be easier if you are pushed through the airport.

There are many people who use this service as a way of avoiding walking through the airport - but I hate being pushed because, quite frankly, it's demeaning.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson in Beijing
Beijing will host the Paralympics after the Olympics

As usual the airline staff tried to take my day chair from me, and figuratively, at least, I stood my ground.

I managed to get agreement, after significant negotiation, that I would be able to take my own chair to the gate.

When I got there, the chair they presented me with was one that I was actually happy to use.

Every other airport chair that I have seen in the world (and I have seen many) are all built for people who weigh about 25 stone and are built in a way that make my feet drag on the floor.

For the first time that I have ever experienced, the chair was based on the size of the person using it, and I could move it myself rather than having to be pushed.

When it came to get on the plane, the day chair became the aisle chair, as the back wheels dropped out and small ones (which were hidden) dropped down so I could get on the aircraft.

While China has so much to learn about including disabled people in their culture, their approach in the airport at least was something to behold and something that many other countries could learn from.

Tanni Grey Thompson has been reporting from the Olympic host city for Inside Sport's Beijing Special on BBC1, Wednesday 20 February, 2250-2330 GMT.

Inside Sport will return to its normal slot on Mondays at 2320 GMT from 25 February.



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