Hopes are mounting that the Beijing Winter Paralympics may become a catalyst for China to take the final steps needed to create a fully “barrier-free” environment for its citizens with disabilities.
In the world’s most populous nation, busy and bumpy roads can sometimes make wheelchair use a challenge, while the tactile paving installed on sidewalks for the blind is often obscured by parked cars, motorcycles and bicycles.
People walk across an intersection in Beijing on May 10, 2021, with many wearing face masks amid worries about the coronavirus. (kyodo) ==kyodo
But in the wake of the 10-day Paralympics through Sunday, Chinese society, which prides itself on its consideration for children and the elderly, appears to have become more interested in creating a livable community for the disabled.
The Global Times, a tabloid under the auspices of the ruling Communist Party, quoted Beijing-based sports commentator Wang Dazhao as saying that the Winter Paralympics has provided a great opportunity to bring about social change.
“It is of greater importance to let more people respect and help disabled people than to build a few blind tracks on the road,” Wang told the newspaper, noting that the number of citizens with disabilities has recently reached 85 million out of a population of 1.4 billion.
One of those who has contributed the most to crafting policies to support disabled individuals in the Communist-led People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, is the oldest son of the late leader Deng Xiaoping, who advanced a policy of “reform and opening- up” since 1978.
Deng Pufang has been confined to a wheelchair since his spinal cord was damaged when he fell victim to persecution in the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 initiated by modern China’s founder Mao Zedong, which historians say killed tens of millions of people .
In 1990, a law on the protection of people with disabilities was enacted in order to ensure “their equal and full participation in social life and their share of the material and cultural wealth of society.”
China also ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, when the country hosted the Beijing Summer Olympics and Paralympics.
People wearing face masks exercise at a park in Beijing on Jan. 14, 2021. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
Meanwhile, rising incomes in China, which overtook Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy in nominal gross domestic product in 2010, have led to an improvement in the employment situation for citizens with disabilities and a reduction of the number of disabled beggars.
Nevertheless, the country’s barrier-free infrastructure has still lagged behind other major economies, said Zhang Hua, a 43-year-old women who has been in a wheelchair since she was a junior high school student.
“Streets are very crowded and rough. It’s natural for delivery bikes to run a red light and go the wrong way on a road. Without the help of my family, it’s impossible for me to use a wheelchair,” said Zhang, who has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years.
Another Beijing resident with a visual handicap said, “I cannot use the tactile paving because it’s hidden by something every time. Some subway stations do not have an elevator. It’s dangerous for me to walk around outside alone.”
Hiroyuki Sakatsume, general manager at Beijing New Century Real Estate Agency Co., said, “Chinese people have not paid attention to a barrier-free environment, as the disabled, the elderly and children have been supported by their family members.”
Even after the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, the Chinese government did not implement measures to “make the public sphere more hospitable to the disabled,” said Sakatsume, who has worked in Beijing for over 10 years.
In the past three years, however, China has installed barrier-free facilities in 336,000 places and built 100 wheelchair-accessible streets in Beijing, the official China Daily newspaper reported.
Premier Li Keqiang said in his policy speech at this year’s seven-day session of the National People’s Congress through Friday that China will “strengthen disability prevention, and provide better rehabilitation services for people with disabilities.”
With the Chinese population graying due largely to its “one-child policy” introduced in 1979, the need for establishing a barrier-free community appears to be increasing.
The one-child policy was scrapped under President Xi Jinping’s leadership in 2016 as concern grew that a rapidly aging population would constrain economic expansion. But China has not seen a baby boom.
China has potential to develop a barrier-free environment, as the nation’s citizens are fundamentally “friendly” to the socially weak, said Midori Yamazaki, a 31-year-old Japanese woman in Beijing.
“Last year, I broke a bone in my foot as I slipped and fell on ice. At that time, I felt that Chinese people were much kinder than Japanese,” she said. “It seems that they have been educated that they should help people in difficulty.”
Fumiko Sato, a 34-year-old Japanese housewife in Beijing, said, “Chinese are very thoughtful to children and the elderly. They give their seat on the subway whenever I hold my baby. They must be kind to the disabled.”
In Beijing, a slogan saying, “Carry forward the spirit of volunteerism, participate in volunteer service,” has been prevalent.
Eiko Mizuno, a researcher for global activities to support accessibility to tourist spots, said it is necessary for China to “raise interest” in people with disabilities through the Beijing Paralympics and to make “sustainable and deep” efforts to achieve a barrier-free society .
“I hope the Beijing Paralympics will become a legacy for the disabled,” said Mizuno of the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo.
More than 560 athletes from 46 countries and regions joined the Beijing Winter Paralympics this year to take part in 78 medal events across six sports.
Photo taken March 12, 2022, shows a slogan saying, “Carry forward the spirit of volunteerism, Participate in volunteer service,” displayed in Beijing. (kyodo)