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Performers with Disabilities Highlight Olympic Cultural Festival


The Olympic Games were created to bring together the best sporting talent from around the world. In recent years the scope has broadened and the games also showcase disabled athletes at the Para-Olympics and the arts at Beijing's Olympic Cultural Festival. VOA's Scott Bobb has this report on a group that embodies both of these more recent traditions.

Huang Yangguang never imagined he would be a professional dancer. Born to a farming family in southern China's Guangxi-Zhuang region, he lost both arms in an accident when he was five years old.

Yet, he is starring in a stylized depiction of farm life. Using only his feet, he twirls an oversize hat and ladles water into gourds hanging from his shoulders.

At the same time a chorus line of dancers, all of them hearing-impaired, perform synchronized steps around him dressed as green vegetable sprouts.

Huang says that being able to support himself through his dancing has raised his self-esteem.

"I have no arms, but I am really confident that I can do everything myself and solve all my problems," he said.

Backstage aides help performers stay on target

Presenting shows like this require special measures. Colleagues off-stage wave their arms in time to the music and give hand signals to synchronize the dancers to music they cannot hear.

And devices such as a string help guide performers who cannot see the stage.

A Chinese government survey says 83 million people in China, more than six percent of the population, live with some form of disability. And of the nearly eight million living in urban areas, about two-thirds are unemployed.

Most performers are teenagers

Yang Haitao and Yang Haijun, two stocky brothers from northwestern Ningxia region China, were born without eyesight. Their rich voices and ability to sing in nearly a dozen languages have taken them all over the world.

Other singers, like Zumulaiti from western China's Xingjiang region, are wheelchair-bound.

The average age of the performers is 18 years. Singer Yang Haijun says they live and study together and help each other, like a large family.

Despite disabilities, performers live normal life

He says the amazing thing is that despite all these people with various impairments they talk, they laugh and live a really happy life.

These special artists are part of China's Disabled Persons Performing Troupe, 88 performers with hearing, visual or physical impairments.

Together they present a dazzling and sometimes moving spectacle of song, dance, drama and poetry delivered in sign language. They have performed in about 60 nations and are to highlight next month's Para-Olympic Games in Beijing.

How the group got started

The troupe's art director is 28-year-old Tai Lihua, from northern Hubei province China. She lost her hearing when she was two-years old (because of a medicine reaction) and joined the group when she was 15.

Using sign language translated by a colleague, she says the troupe was formed 21 years ago to raise awareness about the abilities and the plight of disabled people.

She says she recruits performers from a national special arts performance every four years, from referrals from organizations for the disabled and through the Troupe's own training program for young talent.

Disabled people in China now have more support

Tai says support for disable people in China has greatly improved in recent years.

She says in the major cities now there are guide dogs and special ramps at corners for blind people. There is text on television for the hearing impaired. And she says disabled people are now allowed to drive in China.

Disabled people are also gaining access to education, and as a result their rate of illiteracy has fallen from 59 percent in 1987 to 43 percent today.

2008 Para-Olympics will be larger than previous games

Next month's Para-Olympics in Beijing are to be the largest ever, drawing 4,000 disabled athletes from 150 countries to compete in 20 sports.

Challenges remain, especially that of countering stigma in this highly traditional society.

And that is a major message from these young people who receive standing ovations everywhere they perform.

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