It was an ordinary college reunion as graduates gathered to drink wine, take photos, and chat about student life after having been out school for some 20 years.
But the gathering this week in Binzhou, a city about six hours' drive south of the more modern Beijing, was meant to be significant, as the four scores of graduates were China's first group of disabled youth allowed to receive higher education.
Though Chinese laws protect the educational rights of all people, universities routinely rejected students with even the slightest disabilities. In 1985, Binzhou Medical College in east China's Shandong Province set up the country's first department to enroll physically-disabled students.
After two decades, the disabled youths returned to their Alma Mater as doctors, researchers, and medical experts to celebrate the department's 20th anniversary to prove to the world they can do as well as anyone else.
"For me, it was like a dream coming true to study in college," said Xie Lifu, now deputy chief doctor of rheumatism at Lishui Central Hospital in the affluent eastern province of Zhejiang. "I could have ended up as a beggar on the streets."
Xie, whose right leg has been paralyzed since childhood, walked through the campus with a crutch, enthusiastically showing reporters the places he used to study, dine, and play as a medical student back in late 1980s.
"We studied extremely hard in those days, often staying up past midnight, cracking piles of medical books," Xie said.
Xi Sichuan, Xie's schoolmate and a life-time paraplegic, even made his way to a research position in the Cancer Center of National Institute of Health of the United States.
In a congratulation letter sent to the college, Xi said it was sign of big progress and open-mindedness to universities to the disabled. "We are lucky. My career and new life took off from Binzhou."
According to the China Disabled Persons' Federation (CDPF)， over 30,000 disabled in China have received a college or university education in majors ranging from medicine and computers to massage and folk music in the past two decades.
However, that is a tiny fraction of the country's 60 million disabled people, who are mostly born into poor families and never make it to even high school, said Li Dongmei, an education official with the CDPF.
As the only university open to the disabled then, Binzhou Medical College recruited only 40 students annually to study for bachelor of medicine degrees. Many qualified students were not chosen for an education that would have changed their life.
In 1994, China enacted a law banning all universities from discriminating against the disadvantaged, but even now some schools tend to shut out disabled kids, despite that the disabilities don't seriously affect normal study.
"Even if university doors are wide open for the disabled, they rarely have good luck finding a decent job upon graduation, considering the stronger prejudice in China's efficiency-conscious labor market, following rows of economic reforms," Li said.
"Without the help of the CDPF, I believed a large number of disabled graduates would hardly be able to find a job," Xie said, adding that he was turned down by several hospitals and clinics before setting foot in Lishui Central Hospital.
He remembered his competence being questioned when he first entered the hospital as a doctor.
"But with knowledge and hard work, I earn respect now," Xie said. "Many people come to hospital for me and a handful of hospitals have even offered me larger salaries or higher positions."
"Things are changing, and we disabled will prove to be no less than ordinary people," he said.
(Xinhua News Agency November 29, 2005)