Rehab center helps paraplegic rebuild lives, self-confidence

A rehab center focuses on the heart and soul, not the body, in getting people in wheelchairs to recover their joie-de-vivre and live lives as normally as possible.
Rehab center helps paraplegic rebuild lives, self-confidence
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Xu Jinyuan (left) and Huang Yan demonstrate how to raise the front wheels of a wheelchair, a useful skill to help paraplegic people overcome low barriers like doorsills or steps. The center teaches skills like this to help those in wheelchairs live easier lives.

Hidden in Zhoudang Village near Zhujiajiao watertown in Qingpu District is a two-story townhouse famous among those confined to wheelchairs. Many people from around China come to spend a few days there.

According to Miao Hong, one of the founders of the site, it’s a rehabilitation center, but for the hearts and minds, not the bodies, of the paraplegic.

In 2016, Miao, a paraplegic herself, and three friends rented the house for 50,000 yuan (US$7,265) a year and started the rehab center. They named it Walking Under Blue Skies.

“We provide food and accommodation and teach the paraplegic how to cope with the everyday inconveniences of life,” said Miao. “More importantly, we want them to ‘stand up’ in front of a beautiful world.”

The center charges 2,500 yuan a month or 100 yuan a night for each patient. From time to time, Miao organizes field trips and other activities. She took a group of paraplegics to visit the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and has invited experts to the center to give talks.

Rehab center helps paraplegic rebuild lives, self-confidence
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Huang Yan, who founded the rehabilitation center with Miao Hong, uses a wheelchair accessible elevator in the center which was installed to make it possible for paraplegic people to get upstairs.

Miao just organized a “life-rebuilding camp” in June for a second time. Patients from all over the country gathered together, playing games, singing songs and learning how to deal with complications like bedsores or urinary tract infections.

Xu Jinyuan is one of the frequent visitors at the center. He lives in Dianshan Lake Town in Jiangsu Province, only a 15-minute drive on his three-wheel motor scooter for the disabled.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 1994. Though the disease was finally cured, Xu became a paraplegic after a radiotherapy in 2007, which, according to the doctors, was a rare after-effect.

Before that, Xu was a successful businessman who owned a factory making woollen sweaters.

“Why me to have to suffer all this?” Xu asked himself in his darkest days.

He cut off ties with old friends and business associates out of a resentment he couldn’t explain. For years, he stayed at home, turning from an extrovert to an introvert. He spent most of the time alone and refused to go anywhere with crowds for fear people would stare at his disability.

In 2016, Xu encountered Miao on the Internet. It was then he realized that he was not alone. There were many other people exactly like him, drowning in their self-pity and complaining about how unfairness of life. He realized it had to stop.

Rehab center helps paraplegic rebuild lives, self-confidence
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Miao Hong in front of the rehabilitation center which she helped start, and still runs, in Zhoudang Village.

“Some people with worse conditions than mine still have strength and optimism,” he said.

It was inspiration for him to start opening up and mixing with other paraplegics.

Xu attended a marathon last year, wheeling himself along for 5 kilometers. This May, he took a bullet train from Shanghai to the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province. It was the first time he left town since becoming disabled.

Another patient who loves spending time at the rehab center is Wu Hong from the city of Nantong in Jiangsu Province.

Wu regained consciousness after a hit-and-run accident in 2005 and found he couldn’t feel anything below his torso. The doctors kept telling him that recovery was possible, but after lying in bed for four years, Wu gave up hope.

“The void consumed me,” said Wu. “I watched my legs wither away day by day, and thought that was it.”

By serendipity, Wu’s family heard that Miao was organizing a place to teach paraplegic people life skills. They begged Wu to give it a go.

Like Xu, Wu was stunned to find people whose conditions were far worse than his — people who had spirit to overcome their disabilities.

In July he came to the center for a one-month stay. One morning this month, he awoke at 6:30am and went to Dianshan Lake with Miao and Xu, all in their wheelchairs.

“Here I have found a way to live with dignity,” Wu said. “As Miao keeps telling us, a wheelchair is just another way of walking.”

Miao, 50, is planning to open another training camp in September, despite the fact that two founders of her center have already left and the remaining partner is trying to convince her to quit.

She has been a paraplegic since the age of 7, when she contracted myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord that can disrupt the connection between the brain and the rest of the body.

Miao had to drop out in primary school and stayed home knitting.

“I used to sit on a small stool and drag it as I twisted my hips to move,” said Miao. “I couldn’t feel my limbs at all.”

Miao’s world became the four walls of a small bedroom. She felt like a burden. It has taken her many years to shake off that feeling and begin to live life again.

In 2006, Miao learned to browse the Internet, the first search word she entered was “wheelchair.”

That was how Miao met Huang Yan, who was also paralyzed at age 7 after a traffic accident.

“We had a quite similar, bitter experiences,” said Huang. “This center wasn’t formed for profit. If it weren’t for good Samaritans who support us financially, we would have folded long ago.”

Miao is intent on continuing.

“There are about 2 million paraplegic people in China, but you don’t see them much, do you?” she said. “That’s because they are stranded at home, like I once was. My mission is to help them to rebuild their lives.”

The Shanghai Disabled Persons’ Federation said there are about 940,000 disabled people in the city, but it has no figures on the numbers of paraplegic. On city streets, wheelchair access cut into curbs is often blocked by cars or bikes.

In 2003, the Shanghai government issued regulations on better management of handicapped access. The last update came in 2010. Still, problems remain.

“Many buses don’t have the mechanisms for wheelchair boarding,” Xu said.

Huang said public toilets earmarked for the handicapped are often occupied by non-disabled people, which can be problematical for disabled people like her who can’t control their bowels.

The city has been making strides to improve the situation. The Shanghai Transport Commission said earlier this year that it will renovate wheelchair accessible elevators and toilets in all 395 Metro stations in the city in the next three years.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 taxis with barrier-free facilities are available to provide more convenience to those on wheelchairs.

Xu said wheelchair accessible facilities in Shanghai is already quite good, compared with other parts of China.

“But it’s public awareness that lags behind,” he said.

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