Paralympics must pave way to more respect

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 September, 2008, 12:00am

There could have been no doubting the success of the Paralympics after Beijing's impressive staging of the summer Olympic Games. Paralympians, like their able-bodied counterparts, have had high praise for the facilities, organisation and atmosphere. China similarly swept the medals pool, proving the effectiveness of its training techniques and abilities of its sportspeople. Chinese people have a right to be proud of these top-class achievements.

The benchmarks set will be hard for London and subsequent Paralympic and Olympic hosts to follow. Opening and closing ceremonies of the same order will be difficult to emulate. It is likely that no other nation will be willing or able to put so many billions of dollars into these one-off events. Beijing has made its point and done it well: It can stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the international stage with the best.

Those outside China have got the message loud and clear. But it must also be remembered that staging the sister events was not only about proving China's capability as a global player and partner, but also about moving the nation forward socially. It is too early to evaluate whether those pledges have been kept, but it is hoped Beijing makes every effort to do so. In the case of the Paralympics, it owes it to its 83 million disabled people.

The praise of Paralympians is, after all, in sharp contrast to the criticism heaped on mainland authorities by the nation's paraplegics, blind, deaf and otherwise disabled. They complain of a lack of public facilities, equality in employment and being treated unfairly by society. Amends have been made in parts of Beijing for the Paralympics, with the introduction of special transport and installation of ramps and tactile surfaces at venues and places frequented by athletes and foreign spectators. But beyond those sections of the capital, and elsewhere in the nation, there has been little, if any, change. This is despite the number of people with disabilities being swollen by the Sichuan earthquake.

Altering such ways will not come easily. Backing from the highest level of government is necessary and that has been given by President Hu Jintao ; he pledged on Wednesday more efforts to promote the well-being of the disabled. But this spirit has to permeate all sectors of government to the grass-roots level, where the worst discrimination takes place. It has to be supported with funding to create services and build the necessary infrastructure. Coupling these moves must be a concerted education programme to give the disabled an equal opportunity, and teach respect.

The latter part of such an approach has already started. An estimated 1 billion mainlanders watched the Paralympics on television. They could only have been impressed by the performances of their countrymen and women and feats of South Africa's sprint sensation Oscar Pistorius, whose hi-tech prosthetics have earned him the nickname 'Blade Runner'; his Olympic swimming compatriot Natalie du Toit; Canadian wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc; and Australian swimmer Matthew Cowdrey. Such feats are inspirational to the disabled and proof to society of the grit and determination of those with disabilities.

The Paralympics have taught the nation much about what disabled people are capable of. Translated to everyday life, those with disabilities are no different from the remainder of society. Given equality and respect, they have a valuable role to play. It is now up to the mainland to put that lesson into practice.