Opportunity to promote tolerance of disabled

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 September, 2008, 12:00am

Mainland officials warned yesterday of a possible cultural misunderstanding during the Paralympics, which opens tonight in Beijing.

But they also hailed the 11-day Games as the country's biggest opportunity so far to promote tolerance and understanding of the disabled.

To foster a 'positive image', a high-ranking Games official also hinted that organisers would mobilise volunteers to fill any empty seats at the capital's Paralympic venues.

Paralympics organising committee general secretary Wang Wei suggested that many mainlanders did not know how to get along with the disabled and they 'tend to offer help to people with disabilities no matter whether they ask for it or not, which goes against western conventions.

'The public perception here is that they see people with disabilities as in need of help. So sometimes, western visitors might feel that Chinese overdo [it],' Mr Wang said.

China has a disabled population of 83 million, and over the next couple of weeks Beijing will accommodate an influx of 4,000-plus Paralympians, hundreds of disabled overseas journalists covering the extravaganza and tens of thousands of physically-challenged Games spectators.

Discrimination and curiosity, mixed with excessive compassion, remain a deep-rooted part of the country's public relationship with the disabled. Liu Henian, a former disabled welfare official and now the deputy operations director of the National Stadium, said: 'I have spent much of my time in the staff education programme teaching Games volunteers about the long list of don'ts when dealing with the disabled. I have constantly stressed to them that they should avoid treating the physically challenged as peculiar.'

The highlighted taboos include such basics as 'don't stare at missing body parts' and 'ask before offering help', Mr Liu said.

More than 2,600 of the 3,000-plus volunteers working at the stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest, the venue for tonight's opening ceremony, have received Paralympics- oriented training overseen by Mr Liu.

Despite the worries and meticulous precautions, Mr Liu expected the Paralympics would leave behind an enormous legacy for the cause of the mainland disabled.

'I think all the stereotypes stem from a lack of interaction with the disabled, especially among the able-bodied younger generation. The Paralympics present probably the best opportunity to dispel those stereotypes,' Mr Liu said.

Mr Wang revealed that up to 1.5 million of the 2 million tickets on offer have been snapped up by the public. To avoid the rows of empty seats seen at some events during last month's Olympics, a lightning rod for critics unconvinced by Beijing's murky Olympic ticketing policy, Mr Wang admitted his agency would assign tickets to young volunteers to help foster a 'good atmosphere'.

'It will be a challenge [to make the stands look full],' Mr Wang said. 'But as organisers we will try our best.'

The mainland's disabled population is estimated at: 83m

The number of disabled athletes expected at the Paralympics: 4,000