My Shanghai Experience

by on Thursday, 31 May 2007 Comments

I just came back from 10 days in Shanghai where I gave several talks to various groups of handicapped people and to the students in a large private high school. I was amazed at Shanghai’s size. Every day we would drive for about an hour in different directions and never leave the city. The networks of elevated highways were most impressive. What a lot of planning must have been involved and what a lot of sacrifice and turmoil must have also occurred upsetting people’s lives and uprooting families to clear the highway right of ways for their construction, to say nothing of the countless dwellers dispossessed of their homes to make way for the mountains of high rise structures erupting everywhere. One hopes that there was adequate compensation and the people who had to move are better off than before. Such changes are inevitable and necessary, but so much easier when they happen to others rather than to oneself.

To a superficial eye perhaps, at least to the eye of a foreigner like myself, it might look like the city is turning itself into a clone of some American, European or other “developed” region of the world, but hopefully that will never happen. A culture is not defined by the structures it builds but by the lives and values of those who live in them. Shanghai for all its rush into the 21st century is a Chinese city and may it always remain so. The rest of the world should put aside their pride thinking “how much they are beginning to look like us” and humbly try to help the Chinese to avoid the mistakes they themselves made when they expanded and developed. And the Chinese should never toss away or sacrifice their cultural diversity for the sake of progress or assimilation. The only way Shanghai can become a great Chinese city is to keep its Chinese identity and character. And that is why I was so pleased to find that the heart of the city still seemed so Chinese in spirit and aspiration.

During my stay in Shanghai I had many occasions to meet disabled and handicapped persons. Their concerns are basically the same as those all around the world. All they want is to be accepted by others and treated with respect and, of course, to be given sufficient opportunities to develop their potentials and lead normal lives. Nearly all of them had experienced from time to time rejection, discrimination and denial of assistance. But at the same time, they are still holding on to hope, trying not to give up, but to find opportunities that will allow them to live in peace with self-respect and independence.

Every day for seven days I met a different group of handicapped persons. In each instance, some private individuals concerned with their welfare had organized some activities for them, to discuss their problems and give them some assistance for finding training and work. This is precisely the way that rehabilitation has begun all over the world: some of those who have sharing with those who have not. With its growing economy there are more and more of those in China who have, a very hopeful sign for those who have not.

To those concerned about the needs of all the millions of disabled and handicapped persons in China, the task seems formidable and totally beyond anything they can do as individuals. That is true. What every Chinese who has should be asking himself or herself is not “what can I do to help all the disabled in China?”, but “what can I do right now together with my other concerned neighbors to help those few handicapped right here in my own neighborhood?” This is precisely what those who invited me to speak were doing: extending a helpful hand to their neighbors in distress. If everywhere others would do the same, not only would more and more disabled persons be helped, but also the present rather discouraging attitude of the general public toward handicapped persons would improve dramatically.

We need to change the way we look at persons with disabilities and handicaps. They are not just pitiful people who cannot do things, but only people who cannot do some things the regular way. I cannot walk from here to there, but with a good wheelchair I can still go from here to there. A blind person cannot see the words in a book, but with braille can still read the book.

We disabled persons hope that when you see us you will not say to yourself, "How sad that this person cannot do the things I like to do or go to the places I like to go or work where I work." We hope you will think instead, "Here is someone just like myself. We have the same kind of hopes and needs. Too bad about the limitations, but no matter. What kind of training or special equipment or ramps are needed, so that he or she can also do the things I like to do or go to the places I like to go or work where I work?" What we hope for from you is that you will point out to us all the things we can still do. Help us find a goal for our lives that seems valuable to us and which we can attain even with the disabilities. Then as my friend show me that I am making progress toward that goal and accept me as your neighbor.


Robert Ronald

Bob was among the most prolific writers of eRenlai. He passed away peacefully on January 2 2009 in Taipei. A tribute to his life and his work can be found here on eRenlai:

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