I lived in China for almost three years before I saw someone in public in a wheelchair, and I have yet to see anyone using one under their own power. I think this is largely because China wasn’t built for wheelchairs.
Even in the big cities, it’s hard to find a side walk that would be suitable for rolling, and almost every building has a half dozen steps to the front door. For most of China’s physically disabled people, I would imagine it is difficult to even leave their home, since buildings with less than 8 floors typically do not have elevators. This also includes schools and practically every government building. Not only are there few programs for physical rehabilitation, but they literally can’t even access the public education they are entitled to.
One of my neighbors here in Nanjing seems to have limited mobility due to her age, and the only choice for her family is to carry her and then her wheelchair up to the fourth floor. It must be tiring and frustrating for her family that there is no easier way. I also once saw an elderly man carried across a busy street by a stranger, it was touching, awkward, and more than a little confusing for everyone involved.
At the moment, the only physical disabled people that most Chinese people are familiar with are the beggars who wait next to bus stops and subway stations. Often they display their amputation site, or sit with their broken legs on small sleds with wheels. They are stripped of their dignity because of their impairments, and at the same time it is the lack of respect for these people that keep them from holding more honorable positions.
Slowly though, China is starting to build more facilities for these individuals. Many of Beijing’s new subway stations have elevators, and just today I saw that one station had been retrofitted with a stairway lift. As more and more handicapped people are able to leave their homes and show that they can also be productive members of society (and contribute to their families wealth) I think their position in society could improve rapidly.
The big set back is that China has built tens of thousands of new buildings in the last 20 years, without any standards for accessibility. I hope that very soon this will become a priority for the gov’t, because at the moment children with physical handicaps are still seen as such a burden on the family that some would rather have them aborted (read my post, A fight at the hospital).