When I first came to live in Beijing I noticed something strange: aside from beggars, who often were missing a leg or an arm, sometimes both, I almost never saw people in wheelchairs, almost never saw amputees. My colleague at the time, who had lived in Beijing for 12 years, told me most people in China would be ashamed to have people see them pushing their relative in a wheelchair in public. The disabled in China were usually kept at home, out of sight, he told me. Having a disabled relative was a cause for shame and embarrassment. My colleague also lived for a while in Pyongyang, where attitudes toward the disabled were even more drastic; the handicapped, he said, were simply sent away from the city to outlying towns so North Korea’s capitol would appear picture-perfect.
(When once I did come face to face with a seriously disabled person in Beijing it inspired one of my favorite posts.)
My friend James Palmer, who bears the distinction of being one of the four or five geniuses I’ve ever known in my life, has written a brilliant article on the topic of the disabled in China and, as can be expected, their situation is not an enviable one. (There are some notable exceptions, and Palmer is scrupulous in telling us about them, too — disabled people in Beijing who have been high, visible achievers.)
There is no excuse for China’s abuse of its disabled, who are routinely refused admission to universities and are generally neglected, ignored and kept out of sight (and this is even worse in the countryside, where they are often prisoners in their own house, hungry and miserable, like an unwanted animal). They are all too often left illiterate because schools won’t accept them.
If you judged the country by its laws alone, China would be a global leader on disability rights. The ‘Laws on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities’, introduced in 1990, offer strong and wide-ranging protection of the civil rights of the disabled, guaranteeing employment, education, welfare, and access. But despite the high concerns of the law, Chinese cities make little concession to disabled people. As the sociologist Yu Jianrong has documented, raised pathways for the blind often lead into dead ends, bollards, trees or open pits, or else spiral decoratively but misleadingly. Wheelchair access is non-existent, especially outside Beijing or Shanghai, and guide dogs are effectively forbidden from most public spaces, despite the authorities’ repeated promises of full access.
‘We never leave the facility,’ Yang Wenzhi, 55, told me in 2011. We sat in a concrete pavilion just outside the hospital in Tangshan, together with two others left unable to walk by the earthquake of 1976. The heavy wheels of Yang Wenzhi’s chair crunched autumn leaves as he gestured at the grey buildings of the hospital where he had spent decades. ‘Where could we go? Nowhere in town is reachable by wheelchair. And all our welfare money is taken by the doctors anyway.’
This only scratches the surface of an article rich in detail that uncovers a part of life in China we aren’t supposed to see, and one that we would no doubt rather not see. Please read the whole thing, difficult though that may be. Palmer delves into why those born with a disability are treated so horrifically (those disabled by an accident are not quite as shameful). I can’t possibly capture the essence of the piece in a blog post, but I can promise you that if you read it, it will give you a new perspective on an aspect of Chinese life no one wants to think about. It’s an article that will haunt you for a long time.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.