At first, the mood at the sharing session was cordial but twitchy. Gathering at a cozy conference room of the Chinese Disabled Persons' Federation on a brisk Monday morning, guests knew the bashful children on stage have long-term disabilities, and every single one of them has overcome daunting obstacles few able-bodied individuals have ever had to face. They also knew it wouldn't be easy for them to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight, especially during trying times.
So, the listeners beamed, hung on every word, and hit all the right notes, but out of the corners of their eyes you could see them bracing for uneasiness. There were moments of awkward silence, such as when one kid struggled to regale the audience with his travel stories.
However, as the day wore on, the nervousness the children had gallantly attempted to mask receded, and an overwhelming sense of pride gradually filled the room. When all kids showcased their beautifully crafted artworks in the end, the atmosphere reached fever pitch. The roar of the crowd was almost thunderous, as a much grateful relief and unbridled joy.
With Beijing 2022 approaching fast, the Chinese capital is festooned with eye-catching banners and billboards designed to help whip up an Olympic buzz. The sharing session was part of a charity program that brought seven disabled children from far-away provinces of China to tour Beijing, feel the pulse of the bustling metropolis and spread positivity.
Their three-day trip featured many firsts: first time leaving hometown, first time traveling on a flight, first time seeing flag-raising ceremony at the Tian'anmen Square, first time visiting the National Museum of China, and first time dropping by the headquarters of the Beijing 2022 organizing committee in Shougang Park.
"I'm thrilled to have this wonderful opportunity to see new things and new places," said Duan Hongyu, who grew up in a family with modest means and had to work his way through a special education school in Danjiangkou City, central China's Hubei Province.
The soft-spoken boy suffers from moderate hearing loss and could only structure simple sentences during the session, but that didn't prevent him from declaring his love for Alpine skiing – his favorite winter sport. He is "enchanted" by the moment when athletes "fly to the sky," and he believes "this is the closest they will ever get to their dreams."
The upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics have spurred Duan and other people with disabilities on to more involvement in sports, and as a powerful vehicle for social change and empowerment, the Games also provide a golden chance for China to drive forward the cause of disability rights by further shifting attitudes, improving access and opening up new possibilities.
Since winning the right to stage the 2008 Paralympics, China had made huge strides to improve the lives of people with disabilities and protect their rights as equal members of the society. With the Summer Games acting as a catalyst, the country was one of the first signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, and policymakers have imposed a series of measures to ensure equal opportunities for disabled people thereafter.
However, whatever role the Paralympic Games might have to play in achieving a fairer and better society, much more needs to be done. Last month, the International Paralympic Committee and the International Disability Alliance jointly launched an ambitious global campaign "WeThe15," which aims to remove the wide variety of barriers faced by disabled persons, so all people with impairments are able to "fulfill their potential and be active and visible members of an inclusive society."
How "WeThe15" hopes to initiate any fundamental change remains unclear, but what is certain is China's commitment to advance visibility, inclusion and accessibility for people with impairments.