Top End’s Black: Paralympics Could Open More Doors for Disabled in China

After Top End won a lucrative bid to supply sports and everyday manual chairs to China’s potential Paralympians, Invacare’s Jim Black spent a week in China to assess and fit the country’s elite athletes.

At the Southern California Abilities Expo two weeks after his whirlwind visit to China, Black shared what it was like to work with Chinese athletes and what he learned, personally and professionally, from the journey.

China may be behind other countries when it comes to assistive technology and wheelchair sports, but it’s intent on catching up: “They’re young in the sport, but they’re very knowledgeable, because they really believe that the equipment has more to do with being successful. That was one of the reasons that we got the bid.

“When you spec out a chair for them, they want to know every detail that there is, (such as) why you would do this size. It got really interesting… The Internet’s done a lot for them, just seeing (what’s out there). They’re on the Internet a lot, and they ask a lot of questions.”
Most of the 130 athletes Black fitted had been polio patients or had had amputations. “We didn’t get a lot of spinal cord (athletes),” he said. “The majority (had) polio.”

Black fitted athletes from a wide range of sports, including archery, quad rugby, tennis, table tennis and racing: “Everything’s funded by the government when it comes to sports. They train all day, every day. It’s incredible. The problem is that they don’t have a lot of international competition, because they don’t travel as much. But now they’re bringing in teams to play, and they’re starting to travel. And they’re really successful at it.

“Their racers will train all day and every day, and they probably train way too much for pushing a chair. But I see a lot of great things happening for them.”
China is serious about its wheelchair sports programs, and its coaches and athletes are determined to excel: “The quad rugby guys, of all the sports, they were probably not the most knowledgeable about it. So they were very inquisitive about what the other players are doing, what they could do to their chairs.

Coaches wanted to know strategies…they’re very hungry for that feedback.
“Some of them, like the table tennis players, they think they need folding chairs, because folding chairs are more accessible for them. The education part of it, helping them to understand the efficiencies of a rigid-frame chair, those are the things they were hungry for and wanted to understand.

“They’re very creative and they’re very passionate about what they do. The coaches seem really hungry for knowledge. They’re starting to get more international competition, which is helping them.”
There’s more at stake here than trophies and medals: “The government wants to see them being very successful, and they want to use that as a marketing tool to educate people throughout the country, which is a smart thing to do.

“Keep in mind that these (athletes) who are disabled who really didn’t have this outlet before, they’re treated like kings now, compared to making $5 a month and trying to live off of it. Now they’re catered to, they have food every day, they’re treated like professional athletes.
“The future that they’re looking at is way beyond (the August 2008 Beijing) Paralympics. I would say in the next Paralympics, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

Black’s experience in China gave him a new view of what has traditionally been a closed-off society: “My perception of China (before the trip) was really different. (But) they seem very westernized, more westernized than I thought. They’re very friendly, they laugh, they have a great sense of humor. They’re really open, and they want to talk – a lot! The women are really strong; they’re very well respected. They make a lot of decisions. For instance, there’s a woman coach for the quad rugby team.

“They’re still far behind in the knowledge of what disabilities are. Somebody’s not as helpless as they think they are… I think there’s still a long ways to go there. That’s going to happen with more education. But I think China’s a great country. They’re so friendly and so full of life.”

Counting Down to the Beijing Paralympics

The 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games begin with opening ceremonies on Saturday, Sept. 6, followed by international competition in sports including cycling, fencing, football, powerlifting, shooting and volleyball. The Games conclude on Wed., Sept. 17, with closing ceremonies. To join in the countdown and to keep up with the schedules and results of the competitions, go to http://en.paralympic.beijing2008.cn/index.shtml.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Mobility Management.

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