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.