sharing the Olympic spirit

Special Olympics prompts attitude change in China
Updated: 2007-10-10 18:11


The 2007 Special Olympics in Shanghai has not just been unprecedented in 39-year history, but it is also a sign that China has changed its treatment of the mentally disabled.

Natalie Williams, a 21-year-old Special Olympics basketball player from Kentucky in the United States, says she's never really been treated like a true athletic star before coming to China, CNN reported Tuesday.

"They are able to accept special needs people in a way that maybe some other countries do not," Williams explained.

To ensure 7,500 competitors were well looked after – and more importantly accepted, China budgeted nearly 60 million yuan as a financial backup to ensure the event went smoothly.

President Hu Jintao attended the extravagant and star-studded opening ceremony on October 2 as people celebrated their week-long National Day holiday. CNN described Hu's presence as "particularly notable".

The president's visit to one of Shanghai's "Sunshine Homes", a local charity system caring for the mentally disabled was also observed with interest.

Now there are 240 Sunshine Homes all over the city, caring for about 15,000 of those most in need, like 25-year-old Chen Xiaohan. She still struggles to speak with strangers, but her parents boast of her many achievements since enrolling her there a year ago.

Xiaohan can make her own bed, walk to school and learns piano. But more notable, says her father, Chen Zhixiang, is the change in recent years in the way his daughter is treated by their neighbors.

"If in the past you looked down on them [the mentally disabled] and today you still look down, it only proves your thinking is wrong. Now when our neighbors see her, they're very nice. They ask, 'Chen Xiaohan, how are you today?' There isn't any more discrimination."

The Special Olympics may have been a watershed moment for China's mentally disabled, but perhaps a breakthrough came a few years earlier, when Special Olympian Judy Yang was featured on the front cover of a mainstream Chinese teen magazine.

Photogenic and well-spoken, Yang has been an unofficial ambassador for the mentally disabled and, after her magazine debut, she noticed a big shift in how the Chinese related to people like herself.

"A lot of people are more accepting of us now. They're willing to be our friends, to let their children play with children with mental disabilities, and they can learn from each other as well."

(CNN contributed to the story)

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