Fri 19 Sep 2008
German Paralympic athlete Claudia Biene, Ellie, and Blysse
At 60,000,000 souls, China’s “disabled” population surpasses that of many great nations. Until recently, despite the installation of wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, and other infrastructure upgrades mandated as part of the package to allow Beijing to host the Olympic games, along with the accompanying Paralympic games, actual sightings of differently-abled people has been rare indeed. As with all things China, however, the 2008 Paralympic games have witnessed the greatest support and attendance of any such events in history. Athletes from around the world have been astounded to behold venues packed with spectators, hooting, hollering, and cheering the efforts of all athletes, regardless of nationality, in what may well be one of the best displays of spectator sportsmanship in history.
This is indeed a startling development. Deng Xiaoping, one of China’s greatest leaders, who almost single-handedly ushered in a new age in China’s development that led to greater international cooperation and the unique state-controlled market economy that is growing like gangbusters, did what he could to foster sympathy and understanding for those whose unique physical attributes don’t quite fit into the norm. During the cultural revolution, his eldest son, Deng Fupang fell from a high building and, having been branded as a counterrevolutionary did not receive medical attention and was basically left to rot, along with the other counterrevolutionaries, ultimately leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. When his father secured his place as China’s next great leader, he appointed Deng Fupang as the head of the new China Disabled Persons’ Federation in 1983. Even such support from the highest echelons of political power in China did little to further the path to acceptance of those with differing abilities among the general population. Indeed,echoes of 残废 (can fei) or “useless cripple” likely still reverberate in the ears of those who are skeptical of the sudden acceptance with which they are greeted. Still, such acceptance was no easy accomplishment in any other country, and better late than never.
So, whatever the premise, the fact that millions who have been marginalized are now seeing new-found opportunities is cause for celebration indeed! I was privileged to attend a party thrown by my friend Joerg who is hosting the parents of a Paralympic athlete throughout the duration of the games, and had a chance to talk with Claudia Biene, a bronze medalist in the Athens games. Claudia is fortunate enough to be equipped with one of the most advance prosthetic legs in the world. I mentioned to her that I recalled hearing that a man with two prosthetic legs was able to outrun the fastest “able-bodied” man, to which she replied, “That may be true, but I can assure you that prosthetics are never comfortable.” After our conversation I recalled one of my favorite childhood programs, The Six Million Dollar Man, where an astronaut was equipped with “bionic” limbs after suffering an accident, and I had to wonder… at what point are the “typically-abled” (yes, I have coined a new phrase, and I freely offer it to the world) going to voluntarily elect to amputate their limbs and replace them with artificial technology that they perceive as “better, faster… stronger”?
My sister Alysoun works at Wright State University, a humble Ohio academy that none-the-less was the first in the world to enable a paralyzed person to walk through the use of technology. Her daughter, my niece Heidi, is an incredibly bright and beautiful girl, blossoming into a woman. Alysoun understandably has mixed feelings about China, because she knows full well that if Heidi had been conceived in China, they would have almost certainly have forced her abortion, as Heidi was born with spina bifida and has been wheelchair-bound since early childhood. Alysoun acknowledges that few countries can offer the kind of attention to Heidi that has enabled her to lead the quality of life she has in the US - her helper dog, Madrid, alone cost as much as a car. Few who have ever met Heidi would question her abilities, nor the brightness of her future. Still, Alysoun can’t help but be moved but what has occurred as a result of these Paralympic games. Heidi told me herself a few weeks ago that she longs to visit China. The fact that the country is fast on its way to becoming one of the most accessible in the world, along with the new found respect for the abilities of those who have previously been considered cursed, are sure to make that visit one of the most memorable of her life.