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China Daily Global / 2021-01 / 04 / Page005

Social service empowers women facing physical challenges

By CHENG YUEZHU | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-01-04 00:00

Overcoming the odds and helping others sees her inspire so many

The human pursuit of individuality never ceases, but being told all her life that she is special, Peng Yujiao would rather acknowledge herself as being among the common people.

"Who am I? I am just an ordinary girl with cerebral palsy," Peng said. Beaming with confidence, she gave a speech entitled "Arts, Gender and Disabilities" at the Second China-UK Disability Arts Forum on Dec 3.

"I have always felt that I am ordinary. If I made mistakes at school, I would have been punished. My teacher asked me to stand alongside for the PE lesson even though I could not participate in the exercises, because I am no different from everyone else. This idea has been engraved on my mind since."

She also has a passion for beauty, in both appearance and artistic creations. While cerebral palsy causes uncontrollable tremors, she spent an hour putting on makeup prior to the forum just for the sheer enjoyment of it. The same motivation, sense of fun and achievement drive her passion and interest in drawing.

However, considering the work Peng has done, she can hardly be deemed "ordinary" by any standard. Having worked several years as a social worker, the 30-year-old has been a summer visiting scholar at the University of Oslo in Norway. She is now a member of the Asia-Pacific Network of Women with Disabilities, and runs her own NGO.

As the founder of the Beijing Leyirong Social Work Office and the BEST Beijing Enable Sister Center, Peng now dedicates herself to using the arts and aesthetics to engage and empower women with disabilities and neuro-diversity, and promote their social integration.

The idea of empowering women in particular was inspired by an encounter at the age of 16, when she met another girl with a disability. Regrettably, unlike herself, the girl was assaulted at middle school and could not receive further education, for no high school was willing to accept her.

"I was furious when I heard of her experiences. Growing up I would always hit back if I was bullied. Her experiences are totally unacceptable and I decided I must do something to change the conditions of women with disabilities," Peng says.

Her first job was an early-childhood special-needs teacher at a welfare house, when she "realized the stark reality".

"There I saw a lot of children with cerebral palsy, who also had tremors, some even worse than me," Peng says, "From that moment on, I realized that I am the same as them, and different from the 'common people'."

"But this is a good thing, because when I gave my lessons, I saw that art and aesthetics overcame the obstacles. This marked the beginning of my work in disability and inclusive arts."

At the classroom, Peng along with other teachers helped the small children to turn their scribble into artworks and the pictures proved popular at charity sales.

In 2017, she and two other female friends founded BEST, which was initially a concentrated supporting group and gradually evolved to a registered NGO two years later.

The organization is working to reconstruct the outlook on life of people with disabilities, and to promote the equal and seamless social integration of the group, with drama therapy, art salons and documentaries.

In 2018, Peng directed a documentary recording the lives of women with disabilities. Entitled Jackdaw: Sisters with Disability in China, the documentary highlights the stories of four women, who, with different types of disabilities, provided diverse examples of life experiences.

Most of these women, despite various obstacles, are now living life to the full. One of them is suspected as having osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), but never went to the hospital to get an official diagnosis. She started her first job and her own independent life at the age of 36.

"I wanted to film the documentary because I always loved watching documentaries. In particular a documentary about disabled women who suffered from domestic violence resonated with me greatly,"Peng says.

"So I thought we could also use video recordings to present the current situations of disabled women in China. If others can do it, then I also can make it happen. Fortunately I also had people who were willing to support me."

The name "jackdaw" is a metaphor for female power, and according to Peng, jackdaws are a group of united and tenacious birds. In winter, they fly in formation over the tundra of Siberia to the warmer regions, without leaving anyone behind.

The disability arts forum is hosted by the British Council, Beijing Body On&On Culture Center and Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center. Ge Huichao, founder of Body On&On, has been working with BEST since early this year, and provided a high evaluation of Peng and her organization.

"Every time I listen to her speech, I would feel deeply moved by the truthful and powerful vitality of hers," Ge says.

"BEST has a strong team of founders and advanced artistic means in empowering women. I believe they have the potential to take up leadership roles. Instead of arousing public sympathy with sad stories, they are flourishing with vivacity, which is really precious."

Peng portrays her perception of disability arts with poetic simile:"The hardship of people with disabilities maximizes their sensitivity to art, and art provides them with an outlet. Disability and art are the light of each other, and the light will illuminate the lives of these individuals."

Peng Yujiao, diagnosed with cerebral palsy early in life, is now the founder and head of development of the Beijing Leyirong Social Work Office and BEST Beijing Enable Sister Center. CHINA DAILY

Peng's NGO promotes the social integration of women with disabilities, with drama therapy, art salons and documentaries. CHINA DAILY

Peng gave a speech entitled "Arts, Gender and Disabilities" at the Second China-UK Disability Arts Forum on Dec 3. CHINA DAILY

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