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Feature: China's disabled feel the changes as Paralympics about to end
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08:55, September 17, 2008

Zhang Wei was proud to show people the exquisite Peking Opera masks he made, but the prying eyes on his misshaped back made him hesitate.

The 48-year-old folk artist was born with scoliosis, which rendered his spine curved from side to side. "When I was young, the people called me hunchback Zhang, and they looked at me as if I were from another planet," he recalled.

Since childhood, the Beijing native took refuge in his favorite mask painting, distancing himself from those who saw him as different. Now he has his own workshop. His works are sold at popular outlets on the downtown Wangfujing thoroughfare, and his contractors are willing to wait when he was away helping with an exhibition in the Paralympic Village and unable to deliver any orders.

"It took time for the people to realize that we are not any different. More people are focusing on what the disabled people can do now, rather than what they can't do," he said.

Over the years, he saw the oddly inquisitive faces being replaced by affable and appreciative looks. Zhang attributes such changes to a developing society and a changing mindset.

At a booth in the Paralympic Village, the soft-speaking man explained the essential skills in mask-painting to visitors through a volunteer translator. He made a handsome amount of 1,000 yuan (150 U.S. dollars) a day out of those who were impressed at his works. Along with Zhang were about a dozen other artists with various disabilities. They were invited to work at the village to exhibit their craftsmanship.

China has about 83 million disabled people. Ancient philosophers had advocated equality for the disabled as part of the social welfare building, but the society didn't not truly embrace the disabled as equals. In feudal society, for instance, people with serious disabilities were literally banned from the upper political echelons.

In recent years, the Chinese government has been evoking changes to correct the misconceptions and improve the welfare of the disabled.

China was among the first signatories of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It ratified the convention in June.

The newly-amended Law on Protection of the Disabled of China, which took effect on July 1, added details about financial support, medical care and rehabilitation services for the disabled, along with preferential policies on jobs and taxation.

A sport event at the scale of the Paralympics has been known to speed up critical changes. One notable effect brought by the Athens Paralympics was an elevator at the city's landmark Acropolis which made it mountable for visitors who use wheelchairs.

The Beijing Paralympics also saw a series of changes here. The city's transport system was made more accessible for China's disabled, with more grooved ways for the visually impaired, more buses with lowered doors and rules relaxed to allow guide dogs on the street.

City icons like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall were made less "forbidding" with more barrier-free facilities.

In the period of the Beijing Paralympics, the welfare of the disabled was also highlighted. The Paralympians' athletic spirits provided source of inspiration, and the disabled artists works were introduced and appreciated by an unprecedented number of people.

The 11-day competitions, which drew more than 4,000 athletes from around the world, is about to close soon, but the legacy is rich, experts say.

The Games has raised public awareness and will open doors to more possibilities and choices for the disabled Chinese. Experts are also advocating mirroring the changes in the capital throughout China to make more cities barrier-free.

For thousands of amputees who lost their limbs to the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, the Paralympics provide source of courage and strength.

Chang Li, a 12-year-old boy, had his basketball dream dashed when the earthquake claimed his right arm which used to impress the crowd with sharp free throws. "I probably can't play basketball any more, but I figure I can run, because nobody was faster than me in my class," he said, "I'm going to the Paralympics."

The Games have also nurtured a culture of service and appreciation. "Be grateful and be satisfied - that has become a catchword among our staff," said Deng Yaping, the Paralympic Village spokeswoman.

"Many people feel it's cruel and uncomfortable to see the disabled people competing, but I guarantee you wouldn't feel that way if you watch them. They deserve to be treated like Olympians," Liu Xiangmeng, a Peking University sophomore volunteer, wrote in her blog.

"They are not disabled. They are people with different abilities," she said.

Source: Xinhua

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