In China, people with intellectual disabilities can face stigma from the moment of diagnosis. For decades, even the words for people with disabilities included a slur: ascanfei ren, literally “disabled garbage people.”
The parents of Li Xiang know this all too well. Their baby’s diagnosis of Down syndrome came like a bolt of lightning. "When I got the news, it was like everything collapsed," recalls his mother. They found a ray of hope when Li was old enough to get involved in Special Olympics sports. Then, for the first time, his family began to see ways that Li could succeed. It wasn’t easy. Li had trouble with coordination and balance, and was also very sensitive to failure. But he kept trying and picking himself up again—and again. Li’s coach says, “sports are of enormous help” to him and motivate him to improve his skills.
At age 11, Li was one of the youngest competitors at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. He won a gold medal, two silver and two bronze medals in artistic gymnastics. At the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria, at age 13, he was again among the youngest competitors—taking on a completely new challenge: speedskating. Again, at 15, Li achieved multiple medals at the the 2019 World Games in Abu Dhabi. These days, Li is a 19-year-old World Games veteran, continuing his intense training for the 2023 World Games in Berlin. He’s aiming to beat his 2019 multi-medal performance.
Here’s what this teen says about his experience in Special Olympics so far: “Sports not only strengthen my body, but also change my life. It makes me have a lot of friends, and also makes me feel all kinds of happiness and pride through sports,” says Li. “I hope to bring the happiness of sports to more friends like me, which will be an essential part of my life.”