Thursday, March 8, 2012

In China, blind professor advocates for building a better world for Chinese disabled people


Gripping a pen in her trembling right hand, she signed her name on the paper in front of her, guided by her partner's whispered instructions.

Her signature crossed two entire columns of the proposal it was endorsing. The proposal was formulated by a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) to call for the use of recycled paper. It may have seemed to some that her seemingly exaggerated signature was intended as a flagrant show of support for the proposal. It was, however, a result of her impaired sight.

The lady in question, Yang Jia (pictured), is the first blind overseas Master of Public Administration (MPA) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and the first Chinese mainlander to win HKS' Alumna Achievement Award. She's now working as a professor at the Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (GUCAS). She's also vice chairman of UN Enable, which works to promote the full participation and inclusion of disabled people in society, and a CPPCC member.

At 49, Yang still dreams of building a better world.

"I hope the world will be more beautiful because of the presence of women," Yang said at her personal press conference held on Mar. 7th, a day ahead of this year's International Women's Day.

There is certainly reason to believe that Yang can go some way towards realizing her ambition. Her former mentor, David Gergen, professor of public service at HKS and senior political analyst for CNN, said, "Jia, you taught us so much."

Yang, neatly coordinated and perfectly controlled, recalled her past to the assembled media. However, beneath her poise and erudition lurked a story touched by almost two decades of struggle and hopelessness. "When I first lost my sight at 29, I tripped and fell at home," Yang recalled. "I remember that I was bruised, and this was the time I fell into the abyss of desperation."

Yang felt helpless trapped in her darkened world, controlled by random, invisible forces. Even everyday tasks, which most people can easily perform, were impossible for her. "When a bus conductor suggested that I take a seat over there, I couldn't tell where the seat was," she said. "Neither could I tell where my life was going."

However, the love and care from her family and friends lit up Yang's darkened world. "Dad will be your crutch," her father told her when she revealed her longing to enter the classroom.

At only 24, Yang was the youngest teacher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). She had proved herself able to persevere and break down barriers. She had also demonstrated that she was a young woman who possessed extraordinary courage. And, with the firm yet gentle guidance and support of her father, she has continued her tireless commute between home and school ever since.

In 2001, she was enrolled by HKS, where she got a taste of American multiculturalism, tolerance and freedom. When professor Gergen's course ended, Yang had the opportunity to give a presentation. Her presentation received an unprecedented A-plus. At her graduation ceremony, Joseph Nye, the HKS professor who pioneered the theory of "soft power" greeted her with: "Congratulations. You're China's soft power, Yang Jia. Good luck."

Following her graduation, Yang returned to China, bringing back the cultural knowledge she had absorbed at HKS. She localized the MPA courses, and established the Economic Globalization and Arts of Communication course, which has gained great popularity among her students. In addition, as the vice chairman of UN Enable and CPPCC member, she has worked hard to improve the lives of those living with disabilities and suffering discrimination.

Speaking at her press conference, she said: "I still remember the film of Forrest Gump. His mother tried everything to help Gump become a student in an ordinary school. She was wise to do so, as her son could learn to integrate with wider society while retaining his own style and personality.

She continued: "That was just a film, but it mirrored reality. We encouraged mainstream schools in China to enroll children with disabilities rather than pushing them into special educational institutions." Yang believes that it's crucial to afford equal rights to disabled children, as this is in line with the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted on Dec. 13th, 2006, with about 110 signatories, the highest ever number of signatories to a UN Convention.

Besides education, Yang also hopes that technology can benefit disabled people. "There are no disabled people, instead there is crippled technology," she said. On that theme, she proposed that the post office develop a parcel specially designed for the handicapped, and that China Central Television subtitle its programs for those viewers who are hard of hearing.

In addition to being an advocate for the rights of disabled people, Yang also calls for greater awareness regarding discrimination against women. She believes that women should retire at the same age as men, be relieved of their family burdens through the establishment of nursing homes for infants, and be protected from discrimination in the job market.

"I felt that sometimes, the employers judge their applicants, especially women, simply by their looks. This is a very serious form of discrimination," Yang said.

"The soft power of women is a crucial aspect of a country's soft power. Actually, compared with men, women are a truer embodiment of the meaning of soft power. China could well realize its true prosperity once its women are fully liberated."