China’s Disabled

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.

The Discussion: 4 Comments

The reality is that the situation in Hong Kong and across Asia isn’t much better. While in those places the disabled have greater access to education, prejudice is very high when it comes time to enter the job market.

The Paralympics DID have a massive influence on Beijing as new construction almost always has ramps, every subway line has been made accessible (if not always that convenient) and a number of bus lines are as well.

If you talk to a disabled person in a first or second tier city, they will tell you there have been great strides made over the past 10 years and that while there is still a long way to go, there’s reason for hope. From little things like greater accessibility around cities to finally allowing the disabled to drive, there have been important changes. The CDPF is never going to be a strong, active force in promoting disability rights, but it has worked within the government framework to get some changes taken care of.

February 24, 2014 @ 10:07 am | Comment

I know an expert — a middle-aged Chinese man — who is successful, respected and highly ranked in his field.
He was invited to speak on a professional panel, which would be taped for Chinese TV. But right before, he hurt his leg and had to use a wheelchair. He wasn’t even disabled permanently — it was just a short-term condition.
The organisers immediately kicked him off the panel, since it would make them “look bad.”
It had nothing to do with his credentials or work. He’s not a fashion model or pro-athlete being judged on his looks. In fact, who’s looking at the legs of middle-aged experts anyway?
This was clearly discriminatory – but nobody said anything, because it’s China, and you’re allowed to just blatantly treat someone badly because of their superficial looks.
God help Stephen Hawking if he had been born in Beijing.

February 26, 2014 @ 10:54 pm | Comment


楼上@Hong Konger所说的事情在当下的中国也很常见,砖家虽然因为“有碍观瞻”被拒绝,不过原因往往很复杂,组办方需要为砖家的特殊情况考虑更多,这意味着更多的责任和风险,并且在传统的中国文化中,残疾多少有些不体面。


March 9, 2014 @ 4:10 pm | Comment

Doesn’t matter anymore or less, in America today, some hospitals being built, or rebuilt have fewer, or “stupid” access points. It is like, being built just to correct mistakes later in time. Toilets, while big are also being abused by the able. They need to have special access cards. A facility could have a great toilet for a non-disabled, person, but when you get to the lower-order of people a toilet is just filthy, and they will just run to the disabled toilets.

China is a big place, so they just feel, they could do without the stress or sloth of dealing with a person on disability. It is like, if this person is broken, how could we use them. I remember you posted an article on the hundreds of factory workers, who was left inside a pit. That just goes to show how the big “pussies” in China, see the lower commoner. I am so depressed about that.

Can they work, why do I need to see them. However that is how I feel about the west. I could be a patient, and the doctor collects -2000, to listen to me for one minute, and does not solve my problems. Three visits, only to be given a fee for a next service, that could have been paid for in the second visit.

While a person in China might feel angry against people with disabilities, people in the west with disabilities have the opposite affect. Imagine a person with a gigantic auto-chair. Like the ones we see in comics like “X-men Xaiver”, not the little red ones. It is scary to think about how that same disabled person would feel, like.

On the flip side, when you are dealing with normality. Meaning a society that is itself. I could also see people wanting to make the burden less. A disabled person law, would probably force spending at insane rates. Nobody wants to redo a system that is working correctly???

Another problem is the safety measures. In a rapid society like this, we would have problems.

March 23, 2014 @ 2:59 am | Comment

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