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China Seeks to Uproot Prejudice Against Disabled

New legislation will challenge age-old myths about the handicapped

YUAN YULING was barred from college not for want of a nimble mind, but because he lacks nimble feet. A cheerful librarian, Mr. Yuan is one of China's 52 million handicapped citizens, a group more populous than England and facing a virulent prejudice deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

Yuan, whose real name is withheld at his request, emphasizes that his difficulties stemming from polio were mild compared with those with more severe disabilities.

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``In remote areas disabled people suffer much more,'' he says. ``Many countryside people believe the disabled are living out a punishment for the wrongs of their ancestors, so they treat them very badly.''

Beijing hopes to undercut bias against Yuan and other disabled Chinese with a sweeping national law scheduled to go into force in May. The legislation aims at ensuring proper care and treatment for the disabled at work, school, in the family, and elsewhere in the shove-and-tussle of China's rapidly developing society.

If enforced, the legislation could be one of China's most far-reaching, progressive laws in years: Nearly 1 out of every 5 Chinese families includes a person challenged by a disability, according to state statistics.

``The law puts the entire government behind efforts to bring a change in the public attitude toward the handicapped,'' says Yuan.

Despite the law, foreign and Chinese advocates for the disabled say they are up against several big obstacles.

Many Chinese won't acknowledge that discrimination against the handicapped is a problem. Instructed by age-old myths, many Chinese still turn against the handicapped, particularly those unable to work.

Resources for the disabled are also limited in China where, according to the official figure, at least 19 million people are inadequately clothed and fed.

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Moreover, there is no guarantee the law will be enforced by grass-roots officials, the experts say. Political traditions often subordinate legislation to the whims of those in power.

Ironically, the lobbying behind the law illustrates how powerful individuals, rather than legal procedure, drive policymaking in China. The most prominent champion of the legislation is Deng Pufang, the son of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

The younger Mr. Deng has been paralyzed from the waist down since fanatical Red Guards threw him from a fourth-floor window during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

For nearly a decade, Deng has helped lead China's handicapped to a better life through dogged activism and ``backdoor'' access to his father. Deng's crusade indirectly helped Yuan to leave behind a humiliating dependence on his family.

In 1983, Deng called on China's Education Minister to revoke an act banning disabled students from taking the national college entrance exams.

The repeal came too late to allow Yuan to attend college. But it compelled the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute, where Yuan had audited classes for four years, to grant him a certificate attesting to his scholarship. He soon began working at the school's library.

Traditional attitudes may prove more difficult to change. According to Yuan, advances for the handicapped must be written onto people's hearts as well as the country's law books.

A recent film by the Xian Film Studio entitled ``Mum'' hopes to do just that.

China's first major film dealing with the disabled seeks to break down the taboo that hampers public understanding of the handicapped, says Qin Yan, the film's screenwriter and lead actress.

Shot mostly in stark black-and-white, the film portrays the trials of a mother in caring for her 13-year-old, mentally retarded son. It is laced with brief testimonies by mothers of retarded children.

The film carries a revolutionary message for a society with longstanding prejudices, activists for the disabled say.

``Through the film, I want to dispel misunderstanding and show that the lives of the retarded are meaningful, that they are the brothers and sisters of mankind and have the same right to happiness and work,'' says Ms. Qin.

Yet even people active in helping the disabled hamper efforts toward effective programs for the handicapped, says Jerry Mindes, who is researching China's programs for the handicapped.

For example, Qin herself has been uncomfortable with questions of whether her son is mentally retarded. The state-run press has reported that her movie is autobiographical.

Efforts to help the handicapped are further hindered by the lack of adequate funding.

Even the disabled fortunate enough to be involved in state programs receive care that by the standards of developed countries is extremely crude, says Mr. Mindes.

``If you had a [disabled] relative living like I've seen people living [in China], you'd do anything you could to change their situation,'' says Mindes.

Many families who are unaided by the state struggle to support their handicapped relatives, paying extremely high fees for private care. Some families leave their disabled relatives alone at home. Others disown their handicapped kin, casting them out of the house, say advocates of the disabled.

``There is an image of [disabled] kids being locked alone in rooms throughout China,'' Mindes says.

As China defines the terms and programs for care of the handicapped, one of the few points of apparent unanimity is the desperate need for such help.

As a mother of a disabled child in ``Mum'' says, ``We are the few people who can't even close our eyes when we die, because our children are defenseless when they are left alone.''

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