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Paralympics Spotlights China's 83 Million Disabled People

The Paralympics are an international sporting event, but they also have been shining a spotlight on China's 83 million disabled people. Many say at times they have felt almost invisible. To prepare for the event, Beijing made its public transportation handicapped-friendly and installed handicapped parking spaces at places like the airport. Stephanie Ho reports from the Chinese capital.

Ping Yali will tell you, being a handicapped person in China is not easy. She won China's first-ever Paralympic gold medal, in 1984.

"I was a big Paralympic star. Everyone wanted to interview me. But at night, I had nothing to eat or drink," Yali said. "In the daytime, I told everyone stories of how great it was to win a gold medal, but at night I thought about committing suicide."

Ping is 46 years old and blind. She has never taken public transportation in her life because she could not manage it as a blind person.

She is one of nearly 83 million handicapped people throughout China. There are one million in Beijing alone.

The Beijing city government says things have certainly improved for handicapped people in recent decades. Li Caimao, a Beijing city official, says "Twenty years ago, we didn't understand the concept of accessibility, with regards to disabled people, and now look at us," she said.

Shortly before the Paralympics, Beijing city authorities installed lifts to take people in wheelchairs up and down the many subway stairs. Authorities also added handicapped parking spaces.

Rehabilitation facilities for handicapped people also have improved. The China Rehabilitation Research Center, in Beijing, is among the best of 5,800 such centers around China. It attracts people from all over the country.

"I came to Beijing because the facilities for rehabilitation here are much better than back home," Yao Ruichi said. Ruichi is a disabled policeman from the western province of Ningxia.

Even in Beijing, in the 21st century, being handicapped still presents challenges.

"For blind people, the scariest thing is going down stairs, because our eyes have no sense of three-dimensions," Yali said. "Is there an abyss below? I don't know. I might think it's flat."

Paralympic gold medalist Ping improved her own life by opening a chain of massage parlors [shops] that now provide employment for more than 20 blind masseurs. And, to help her avoid stairs whenever possible, she became the proud owner of Beijing's first guide dog, Lucky, late last year.