Zhao Chun Li, a disabled woman from China, visits the...

Zhao Chun Li, a disabled woman from China, visits the Henry Viscardi School at the Viscardi Center in Albertson, NY. (July 19, 2013) Credit: Chuck Fadely

Born with brittle bone disease and dwarfism, Zhao Chun Li was hidden by her parents as an "embarrassment" when President Bill Clinton visited her Chinese fishing village in 1998.

Denied medical treatment, Zhao suffered through her childhood, saying she went to bed every night in pain. Her father wouldn't send her to school.

"I never felt valued as a person. I had no dreams, no goals," Zhao, 30, recalled last year. "People think that if your body is not normal, something must be wrong with your brain."

Fourteen years later, with the help of activists, Zhao finally had her chance to meet Clinton -- and discuss her dream of aiding special-needs youth in China.

She met with Clinton Global Initiative officials in New York City and has been on Long Island this week, visiting the acclaimed Henry Viscardi School for severely disabled youths in Albertson.

A half-century ago, when the school was founded, disabled children weren't permitted in mainstream classrooms, for fear they would scare other students or be incapable of doing classwork, said Patrice M. Kuntzler, the school's vice president of program development.

Zhao said Friday that she hopes to serve as an advocate for the disabled around the world. She points to her own experience -- working a job for 12 years, marrying and adopting a daughter -- as examples of what's available to the disabled if they are empowered.

She likens herself to a frog leaping out of a well. In her small village, she could see "just a little," she said. But "when you jump out of the well, you see how big the world is, how big the sky is. You see that people with disabilities can do everything."

Zhao said she had one of these revelations at the 185-student Henry Viscardi School, where programs from pre-K to 12th grade are tuition-free -- funded by state subsidies and private donations.

Each student receives a customized laptop to assist in the classroom, but otherwise the school operates like any other, complete with field trips, adapted sports, extracurricular activities and even a senior prom.

Zhao, who hopes to open a resource center for parents of disabled children in China, was impressed by the school's use of assistive technology. Back home, she said, she's often carried from place to place.

During her visit, she tried out a motorized wheelchair for the first time and watched in amazement as a Henry Viscardi graduate who shares Zhao's disability drove into the school parking lot -- in an adapted minivan.

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