Earlier this year, Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng escaped home arrest and took refuge at the American Embassy in Beijing. Little did he know that he would be studying law at New York University months later, following diplomatic negotiations involving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and Chinese officials.
Guangcheng, who is blind, has spent his career confronting the Chinese government’s approach to disability rights, something he’s continuing to do from New York.
In his first national broadcast interview since arriving in the United States, Guangcheng describes the intersection between human rights and disability rights in the United States and in his native China. Chen says that disabled people can hold up "a mirror to society."
Susan Dooha is the executive director of the Center For Independence of the Disabled, New York and Stephen Hallett, the chair of British charity China Vision, translates for Chen.
Dooha's organization provides services such as housing and food stamps to disabled residents of New York. "I'm very excited to hear how Mr. Chen poses the challenges of achieving disability rights," Dooha says. "We here are only too aware of the need to move further in the enforcement and implementation of disability rights." Disabled Americans, Dooha says, still face significant challenges in terms of education and employment.
Dooha and Chen both stress the importance of how a society treats its disabled members, and what can be learned from taking a look at the freedoms and limitations of vulnerable citizens. "I think that people with disabilities are often the canary in the coal mine, and when a system isn't working in a way that recognizes the diversity of the community, it isn't working for people with disabilities," Dooha says. "So as we look at the outcomes we're able to achieve as people with disabilities, we're able to recognize where the systems can be improved."
One of the keys to protecting the rights of the disabled, Chen says, is that disabled people themselves become involved in the struggle to improve their situations. "It's very important that disabled peoples' rights have to be enforced, and have to be protected by disabled people themselves by being involved in that process," he says.
"It's not so much a matter of actually convincing people through talking to them, it's a matter of acting and being an example to other people, so through our own action we can show that we can bring about change," Chen says. "That then encourages many, many people, a great group of people, to be involved in this process and increase their efficiency to bring about genuine change."
While he is enjoying his time in New York, Chen says that a return to China is inevitable. He hopes to continue his efforts to curb the uncontrolled powers of local authorities through legal means. "I think the role of lawyers in promoting implementation of the constitution is absolutely essential, and can't be denied," Chen says.
Chen Guangcheng: I think that the most important way of guaranteeing the rights and interests of people with disabilities is to raise awareness so the disabled people themselves are aware of their legal and social rights. China has a law called the disabled persons protections law that was introduced in 1999. Its implementation has been problematic and the main reason for that is that disabled people haven’t been aware enough of their rights and haven’t been involved enough in the process of law implementation.
John Hockenberry: Mr Chen, as you make people disabled people aware of their rights, how responsive is the government in your experience?
CG: I think that the Chinese Government is trying to avoid as much trouble as possible so if it can get away by doing one thing instead of doing eight things, it will choose to do the one thing. It’s not that aware of disability rights as such but it’s trying to avoid any sort of trouble. So the Chinese Government has introduced certain measures to try and improve the lives of disabled people and to realize their rights, but unless disabled people themselves become aware of their rights and engage in that process, then the government isn’t going to take very much positive action.
JH: Is your blindness something that makes you more radical? A tougher opponent?
CG: I think it’s important for everybody to request the highest standards from the government and it’s not necessarily because I’m a blind person that I take a particularly active or particularly progressive view on this. I think it’s the responsibility of everybody to do that. And I think that all people should be involved in greater justice and requiring the government to live up to is promises to enforce justice and the law.
JH: Do you remember the first person who told you ‘no, you can’t do that because you’re blind.’? Who were they? And what did you tell them?
CG: I’ve encountered that sort of thing on many occasions. I can’t mention any particular person who told me that I wouldn’t come to the United States. But certainly there were many people who told me that as a blind person, I needed constant support and help and that I couldn’t be independent t and live on my own. And I think it’s very important that I can be independent and that I can do things for myself.
JH: Americans like to think of this place as the land of the free, have you found it to be some elysian fields, some paradise, for disabled people here in New York?
CG: I would say that there’s another phrase, that “There isn’t the best, there’s only better” and everything in that way is relative, so we can strive to improve things that in any situation at any particular period in time we can always make improvements. Having come to New York I’ve found that there are many problems, that New York isn’t perfect in terms of accessibility. For example, for wheelchair users, very often the raised pavements or the slopes provided for wheelchairs are not perfect, and there are still obstacles, so I think much more can be done to improve it.
JH: Susan, what do you envision as the possible collaboration between Chen Guangcheng the issues that he’s raised here and disability advocates here in the land of the free?
Susan Dooha: I’m very excited to hear how Mr Chen poses the challenges of achieving disability rights. We here are only too aware of the need to move further in the enforcement and implementation of disability rights. We see people with disabilities here more likely to be living in poverty, facing barriers in education, worse outcomes and barriers to employment, to housing top healthcare. All of these areas that are so critical to all of our lives show us that we are not yet equal, we are not yet fully integrated in society. We still face stigma, but I see an incredible opportunity here to understand how these challenges are being addressed by activists all over the world. This is one of the most important things that we can do as disability activists is to understand what we have in common with people across the world.
CG: I would agree with you. It’s very important that disabled peoples’ rights have to be enforced and have to be protected by disabled people themselves by being involved in that process. I would say that even if we have very good laws, that implementation is a problem and that’s to do with the efficiency of implementation and as disabled people we have to be actively involved in making sure that laws are implemented. That’s all part of creating a more equal, a more just, a more civilized society and we can all be part of that process.
Susan Dooha: If I might I think that people with disabilities are often the canary in the coal mine and when a system isn’t working in a way that recognizes the diversity of the community, it isn’t working for people with disabilities. So as we look at the outcomes we’re able to achieve, as people with disabilities, we’re able to recognize where the systems can be improved.
CG: Disabled people are like a mirror to society and if we hold up the mirror of disability to society, we can see whether the society itself is disabled or not. Disabled people do indeed face a lot of problems and obstacles which maybe people without disabilities don’t and life can be very inconvenient, but all those inconveniences could be remedied through fairly simple means. So it’s very important to take an active role in reducing those differences between people and disabled people can be an important part of that process.
JH: Let’s hold on that for a moment. Let’s hold that mirror up if we could. Because it really rakes someone walking away from their fear to take action and to advocate for themselves. Who, Mr Chen, have you convinced to no longer be afraid, to actually step up and make their rights a reality?
CG: There are many examples of people who have been influenced by my work in the past, but I can give one particular example. There was a law at that time that said disabled people weren’t to be subject to agricultural tax, but it wasn’t being properly implemented. I worked with one particular case, somebody that didn’t have the courage to take their case to the courts. But we worked with him, he took his case to the court and eventually won his case against the local government and got a tax rebate, so wasn’t forced any longer to pay tax as a disabled person. Now that one example has encouraged many other people to follow and access their rights.
JH: Susan a comment, and then we’ve got a couple before we go.
CG: Here our approach is much the same. We as people with disabilities lead by example. We develop self advocacy skills, we developed advocacy skills to change systems and we teach each other how to engage on issues and how to achieve victories. We work collectively to change the way laws work, to change the way systems work and to change the way peoples’ minds work. So that is at the core of what we do here in New York.
JH: Winning is a plausible option. That’s the lesson.
CG: Of course, the difference is that in America, it’s very possible for you to organize and get together to take collective action. In China, that’s very dangerous and people are very frightened to do that. So apart from solving some of the problems of our work, we also have to solve some of the problems of the environment that we live in.
JH: So let’s get down to basics here. Why is it that you make the Chinese government so mad? And are they going to let you go back home and continue this work?
CG: I think going back to china is inevitable. It’s just a question of when and I can’t say exactly what time it will be. I think what’s most important, is to make the authorities, to make the Chinese Government aware that there are problems. Very often the government simply wants to ignore those problems. I think people like us who are involved in rights action have raised certain issues which make the government feel very uncomfortable and that has made them very angry.
JH: A lot of people listening to this may say aright fine, alright, so we get some taxes removed from people with disabilities, we get them some access to jobs. How does this inform of change the human rights struggle for people being tortured, for people imprisoned improperly, for people who’re rounded up and detained, raped and never heard from again?: how does this help that?
CG: I think using the process of law and litigation is very important in all fields. We’ve been involved in many different cases including the ones such as you describe in the past. And I think whether it’s involved with disabled people, accessing their basic rights to a better life, whether it’s more serious cases than that, I think using the same processes of law is equally important.
JH: Jonathan Fenby the journalist in China had this question for you Chen, I want to read it, they’ll paraphrase here. He wanted to know more than anything, if you think you’ve made a difference because of what’s happened over the last few months. Do you think lawyers will be able to evoke the constitution or will local authorities in China continue this wild west attitude and be able to take matters into their own hands? Any evidence of change?
CG: I think the role of lawyers in promoting implementation of the constitution is absolutely essential and can’t be denied. Of course there are cases that will succeed and any cases that have failed. The cases that have failed are often because of other factors beyond the control of the lawyers, but I think that doesn’t deny the fact that lawyers play a very, very important role in realizing the implementation of the constitution.
JH: Do you think, Mr Chen, that the US should immediately ratify the UN International Convention on the Rights of the Disabled and would you urge senator John Carey to take it up in his committee in the senate?
CG: I think for a country as important as America, ratifying the CRPD, the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, is a very important part of American’s role in the world. The US should be involved in human rights causes around the world and I think it’s very important that senators and people in the government should be involved in promoting America’s ratification of the convention. But I haven’t been in the United States for very long so I don’t entirely understand the process. What is the reason that the US hasn’t yet ratified? Is it just a question of inefficiency or are there general obstacles to ratification?
JH: Mr Chen, many people are asking this precise question. I don’t have answer for you. China, Beijing, Washington…they have some things in common maybe?
CG: I think all countries have something in common. So it’s very important that disabled people from all over the world do unite together to promote these rights and to find our common causes, to find the things that bring us together and unite us and find the most positive things which bring us together.