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Facing a 'Dragon' to Change Attitudes Toward Disability in China

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For 16 years now, I have embraced life as a quadriplegic. I often felt like I needed to be an armored knight, and my courage and determination is my armor to protect me from possible prejudice, inaccessibility and frustrations. These are the little “demons” I fight in life.

So where did I get the idea of wanting to face a dragon? It all started long long time ago in a land far far away… actually, it was about six years ago in China. My mom told me of a heart-wrenching tale. While my parents were visiting China they encountered a person much like myself, but the person had no wheelchair, no support and sat on a board with tiny little wheels. It brought tears to their eyes. This made me feel sad, and at the same time lucky to be living in a supportive community and surrounded by open-minded and giving people.

After doing some research, I found that the Chinese government has already started making changes, and these changes were accelerated after the Beijing Paralympics. However, due to the sheer number of registered people with disability in China (90 million and counting), people are not able to enjoy many of these changes. Rural communities face the greatest challenges; sometimes they lack the infrastructure necessary to relay information, plus the lack of education affects the government’s effort to convey information. The second reason is the mindset of people: low self-esteem and lack of positive outlook. From that point on, I felt a strong urge to help my fellow kinsmen by using my experiences in Canada to empower them, show them there is hope and possibility for their own future. And in order to do this, I must face a Chinese dragon.

I worked hard to prepare myself. I started with attending The Steadward Center for Personal Achievement at the University of Alberta to help with strengthening my muscles. I visited a sports injury doctor named Dr. Gregg to deal with injuries from a fall I had the previous year. Next, I looked for training grounds. I trained on a daily basis on different hills in Edmonton, ramps in buildings, in a studio and home for cardio to compliment my strength training. And finally, I went to relax and get the knots out of my muscles at the Bethune Medical Center for acupuncture, massage, and cupping. I did all these preparations between surgeries, doctor’s visits and frequent autonomic dysreflexia attacks. People kept asking me “Aren’t you afraid?” “You are sick, why don’t you rest?” “You are injured, why don’t you cancel the event?” My response is simple: “I only give myself reasons to move forward and never excuses to stop.” After many blisters, modified techniques, positive self-talk and planning out my travel path, at last I was ready to meet my “dragon” in real life. I headed to China.

September 26 started with a loud crash, lighting and rain storm in the early morning, and I didn’t sleep well the night before due to health issues. My friends were worried and asked me if I wanted to cancel the event, but I held out hope that the weather would clear up and I would feel better soon. Around 6 a.m., suddenly the rain went from pouring to just a sprinkle. I held out hope to complete the journey, and within hours I was on my way with family and friends, heading towards my dragon. As the bus slowly moved us through the busy morning traffic towards my sleeping dragon in the mountains, I was sharpening my swords and putting on my mental armor to prepare for the ultimate battle.

The rain had stopped as the bus pulled into the parking area. I could see the shadow of the “dragon” wrapping around the mountaintop. In order to ensure the success of my journey, my boyfriend and cousins became my knight and shiny armors took on the responsibility of pushing me about 2 km on a nicely paved road all the way up to the entrance to the “dragon’s” cave. With my family and friends supporting me, I felt an overwhelming amount of strength surging through my body. Then I saw the stone plaque which sparked my adrenaline, with the carved inscription 八达岭长城 (Ba Da Ling Great Wall). Yes, you might have guessed it by now, my dragon is the Great Wall of China, and I will be the first quadriplegic in the world to wheel up it.

The idea was inspired by my hero Rick Hasen, a fellow Canadian and Paralympian who wheeled on the Great Wall of China exactly 30 years ago. He wheeled around the world in 2 years, 2 months and 2 days. His effort forever changed the lives of people with disabilities in treatment, care, rehabilitation and outlook on life. His journey of wheeling on the Great Wall shocked all of China, the world and empowered millions of people. Thirty years later, his effort gave me the idea to face the dragon.

I was ushered up the newly built wheelchair accessible ramp towards the wall which was built during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. My friends whispered words of encouragements as we moved closer to my wheelchair entrance. Before I knew it, we were only 50 meters to my starting point, and 5 minutes to my battlefield. Millions of butterflies started to fly around in my stomach, thousands of bees start to buzz in my mind… I was getting excited to meet my “dragon.”

I entered the gate with my friends, helped up a 30 degree, narrow ramp with unevenly placed stones with big gaps to the gun tower; popped wheelie up one big step to go inside a very narrow arched doorway then backed down one small step to exit the gun tower (these stone doorways width is only about 30 inches); now we had to ask a few strong bystanders to lift me up about 8 stone steps before I am officially on the wall. At last, I am staring into the eyes of the “dragon” and have reached my battlefield.

Now I start the preparations to ride the “Dragon”. I had twisted my back due to a fall in 2015, so each uphill push feels like a sharp knife stabbed deep inside my spine. The same fall had also sprained my wrist. These injuries had hindered my ability to fully face my dragon but I was stubborn and I took about 30 min to actually strap on real life armors to ensure my victory. A few arm stretches and warm-ups, with butterflies in my stomach ready to explode, I was ready to ride.

The Great Wall of China is nothing like what I pictured. It is composed of mostly stairs which is definitely not wheelchair accessible. The short pathways that had no stairs are very difficult to navigate in a wheelchair, because it’s much like the scales on a dragon. The stones on the wall are worn from millions of visitors every year, but the cement holding them together is not; therefore I must pop a wheelie with every push. Good thing I was prepared for such a case and brought a Freewheel my friend Dan lent me. Because the wall was constructed by human power, the path is not evenly built, so I had to compensate by constantly pushing harder on one side just to keep myself balanced and avoid hitting the side of the wall. Every 100 meters or so, a 1-2 inch “speed bump” was built on the path, which made it very difficult for me to get over. I had to get family and friends to assist me. And finally, aside from the high altitude, smog and thousands of people simply walking in front of your path, the most difficult challenge I was faced is the incline in the path. The path I had chosen had an incline ranging from 10 to 20 degrees. Normally this incline would not be too much of a problem, however when all of the elements above are combined, this path becomes almost impossible. Well, there was no time to waste. My adrenaline was pumping and I was ready to ride this “dragon.”

To say the climb was very difficult is an understatement. I had a rough start. Due to all the elements mentioned above, I kept pushing myself into the wall due to the uneven surface. I was overspending my energy pushing because of the bumpy cement every few inches in front of me. The rain the night before had made the pathway very slippery. The only thing that was on my side that day was the temperature; the rain had lowered the temperature to a tolerable degree. Since I do not sweat from heat as a quadriplegic, it was a blessing to be wheeling the wall in 15 degree temperatures.

After about 5 minutes, I realized I needed to change strategy because I could not keep up this pace much longer. I reassessed the situation, took a short break to stretch, and started my climb again with renewed energy. Each push forward used to feel like lifting a 100 pound weight on an empty stomach; now I pushed by shifting my weight backward, popping my casters and the freewheel upward to have the wheels over the cement. I used my whole body weight to assist my arms and shoulder to push forward. This appeared to be working. After shouting encouragement to myself with every push, I found my rhythm. I was once again on my way up the “dragon scales” toward my final destination.

The climb was surprisingly quiet; I guess the bystanders weren’t so sure what I was doing as they had not seen anyone with a disability ever dare to climb a “dragon” before. “Ah! Push!” I heard myself screaming. As people got used to the idea, I heard more cheering and positive encouragement. My boyfriend rushed to my side often to check up on me; he inquired if I needed water and reminded me to rest. But I was so caught up in the excitement and adrenaline, I pushed on.

I did stop twice to pour water on my head because I was overheated, and once to stretch my arms. The goal was within my reach, and I did not want to waste any time to get there. Fatigue hit me hard with 100 more meters left to go, but I did not let anyone know. Instead, I started counting each of my pushes out loud. “1! 2! 3! 4!” until I hit 25. I would pause, drink a sip of water, pour water on my head to cool off and count my next 25 pushes. This is much like the techniques I learned from a personal empowerment training I took at the Pacific Institute. Achieving success is about making two types of goals: long term goals like wheeling on the Great Wall of China, and short term goals like pushing 25 pushes to move ahead.

As I counted my pushes to encourage myself, the bystanders also caught on. During my last 25 pushes towards my goal, with my father standing and waiting for me at the finish line, everyone was counting with me loudly and clapping to cheer me on. I suddenly got a surge of energy through my body and moved forward with amazing speed. At the end I completed my goal, achieved the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in life, and faced my “dragon” in 27 minutes — 20 minutes shorter than all of my previous times during training. I can summarize my experience in one single word — awesome.

Rick Hansen’s wheel around the world in an effort to bring about disability awareness 30 years ago enabled me to completed my quest to face my “dragon” today. I hope my effort will help bring changes in the lives of the current generations of persons with disabilities. You’ve journeyed with me on my quest to meet my “dragon” — the Great Wall of China. You have experienced with me the triumph, tribulations, heartaches, pain and how to overcome them. Life is full of little “demons” — in order to succeed, do not give yourself excuses to give up. Only give yourself reasons to move forward. Good luck achieving your dreams and see you on the next adventure.

Follow this journey on The Mighty Kuen.

Originally published: March 12, 2018
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