On the drive to the Great Wall, Wu Shuang told us more about the work of One Plus One. Some of the biggest barriers faced by people with disabilities are simply the misconceptions and negative attitudes society has towards disabilities. Negative social pressures are probably felt even more in China than in the US since Chinese culture values conformity so much. People with disabilities appear very different on the surface, especially those with physical disabilities. As a result, PWDs tend to experience stifling social pressure to not be different. How does one learn to assert their needs and desires in the face of both external and internal pressures to conform?
When our driver dropped us off at the entrance to the Great Wall, we stopped to figure out some logistics. With three blind people and two sighted people, how should we go up the wall? Two pairs and one alone? One long chain? March up the Wall without any formations? We discussed and discussed, then finally Charles asked Cameron (my Support Service Provider), “Do you want to chain it with just one blind person or two?”
Tai jumped in with the perfect quip, “One Plus One! (yī jiā yī!)” Of course two blind people are better than one! Laughing and cheering, Charles chose to chain it with two rather than one.
With three canes, three Caucasians, one African, and only one Asian among us, our group could not have possibly been more conspicuous. We subconsciously agreed to have a great time at the Great Wall–not a nice time or an OK time, but a GREAT time. Asserting our interests over the social pressures to hide our differences, we ignored the people who stopped, stared, and snapped pictures of our group. We didn’t hesitate to “be blind” by using our hands to admire turrets and carvings on the Wall. People noticed Charles and Cameron giving visual descriptions of the surroundings, and sometimes they chipped in, too.
Charles: “OK guys, just another 20 steep steps ahead!”
Helpful hiker, “And after that, just another 300!”
People observing us, as doubtless they were, gained a new set of images of disability as they observed us dancing and singing. Tai had been longing to learn a song in Chinese, so Wu Shuang provided a musical performance. The path up the wall had quite a few gullies, and Charles jokingly described my method of crossing these gullies to the others as The Haben Hop. I urged him to come up with dance moves for all of us, and so we had: The Charlie Cane Wave, The Shuang Sing, The Tai Stomp, and The Cammy Run. We descended the Wall laughing, doing our various dance moves, and taking turns being blind photographers. In the last stretch before our car, we linked arms and formed one long blind chain with Cameron at the lead and Charles in the middle with his eyes closed.
Climbing the Great Wall of China with fellow disability rights advocates held a special meaning. Our presence added a new history to the Great Wall, a wall that already contained thousands of years of special meanings. Who knows how disability rights in China might change after our week’s worth of learning, sharing, and exchanging ideas. The decision of Renmin University Law School to organize a disability rights exchange created this wonderful trip with lasting benefits. Students at Renmin University learned that people with disabilities are people who should be treated with dignity and respect. The school’s leaders learned about ways to overcome the inaccessibility of the national exam, such as by offering alternative admission options. Disability rights lawyers and advocates learned about the importance of confidence and independence training centers. In fact, members of One Plus One plan to visit a blindness skills training center in the US and build a similar training center in China. These are some of the concrete benefits, but so many benefits are hard to quantify. How many of the students last week felt inspired enough by our lectures to become disability rights lawyers? How do you quantify the ways in which the principal of the school for the blind felt motivated to envision careers for his students beyond massage and piano tuning, or even opening his school’s doors to deafblind children?
It’s hard to put a finger on all the benefits of diversity, but I came home from China with an overwhelming sense of enlightenment. Before this trip, I hadn’t realized the fundamental importance of confidence and independence skills. A smartphone with text-to-speech and GPS certainly makes traveling easier, but even that would be useless if Tai and I had not received training in how to travel with a white cane, how to ask people for directions and thank them for their assistance. Expensive technology helps, but it is not necessary. Helen Keller made it through college with only a typewriter. Self-confidence allows people with disabilities to negotiate obstacles and educate inaccessible institutions. Due to the self-confidence developed at blindness training centers, Tai and I did not hesitate to have the greatest adventure of a lifetime in Beijing.