How Her Face on a Billboard Changed a Nation’s Attitude


People used to look at Yi Zeng’s daughter, Zengzeng Zhao, as if the little girl was different. When she walked down the streets of Shanghai, China, it felt as though she was only met with stares — some of estrangement, some of unwarranted sympathy and some of confusion. Even though her mom and dad had accepted her Down syndrome diagnosis, it seemed that passersby could not.

“Some people would even tell me, ‘Zengzeng is a good looking kid, but it’s a pity that she has intellectual disabilities,'” Zeng recalls now, 20 years later. “I could do nothing except tell her that ‘we live for ourselves, so don’t care about what others say.'”

When Zeng’s husband then died from lung cancer in 1997, she felt as though “the sky was falling down.” She was left alone to raise Zengzeng, then 9, and her other daughter, Haiying, then 8. She took jobs at a parking structure during the day and a restaurant at night to make ends meet, all the while struggling to help Zengzeng live with an intellectual disability. The stares on the street grew harder to deal with every day.

Then, everything changed — Zengzeng was chosen as the global ambassador for the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai. This meant a few things. To start, more passersby would see the then-19-year-old’s face; billboards with her picture lined Shanghai’s streets and a video announcing the games and featuring her was released.

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Off camera, Zengzeng received speech and presentation training and earned a special pair of running sneakers from basketball star Yao Ming. She began participating in and speaking at Special Olympic events, changing the way the country and world viewed Down syndrome.

“Going out for a walk was never a problem again,” her mother said. “People say hi to us when they recognize Zengzeng. They also tell me Zengzeng is amazing.”

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Today, Zeng is 25 and works every day as a restaurant hostess at Jiangwan Store of Papa John’s. Her differences are more widely accepted, her mother says. People look forward to seeing her smile, and she no longer holds her head down in public.

“It was Special Olympics that transformed Zengzeng into a thoughtful and polite kid,” Zeng says now. “Special Olympics have not only brought happiness and confidence to Zengzeng, but also pride for our family.”

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In less than a year, 7,000 Special Olympics athletes from 177 countries will parade into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015. This ceremony will kick-off a nine day celebration of courage, determination and joy as well as the largest sports and humanitarian event in 2015 and the largest event in Los Angeles since the ’84 Olympics.

Join in the One Year Away Celebration by spreading the word that the world is coming.

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