Discrimination in China’s Schools

A Q&A with Maya Wang

In a new report titled As Long As They Let Us Stay in Class: Barriers to Education for Persons with Disabilities in China, the New York-based non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) outlines systemic discrimination against students with disabilities in China’s schools and calls on the Chinese government to revise existing laws and regulations to make education accessible to all. ChinaFile Editor Susan Jakes spoke with Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for HRW, about the report.

Why did you choose to focus on discrimination against children with disabilities?

The Chinese government says its population includes 83 million persons with disabilities, but, using the World Bank’s standard estimate of 15 percent of the world’s population as a benchmark, the true number is likely closer to 200 million. China ratified the international Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2008. And last fall, at a review of China’s compliance with the Convention, we heard Chinese officials insist that children with disabilities in China are guaranteed access to education. But our research, which included dozens of interviews with children, parents, teachers, and other disability and education rights activists and experts, made us realize how big the gap is between official rhetoric and practice on education of children with disabilities, and how little rights-based research there is about what, arguably, is China’s “largest minority.”

In Chinese schools, unless children show they are “able to adapt themselves” to the mainstream system, they are not welcome. In higher education, such exclusion is clearly stated in official policy—according to those policies, students with certain physical or mental defects can be denied access to mainstream university or for some of the academic fields.

In September 2012, dozens of newspapers in China ran stories about Li Meng, a fifteen-year-old boy with autism, who was expelled from a local public school in Shenzhen. Li had sneaked back into his class to sit in the back row. When the school took away his desk and chair, he stood against the wall at the back of the class. After a group of parents wrote to the school complaining about Li and his “odd behaviors,” the school ordered Li to leave and never to return. But, thanks to the press coverage of Li’s case, school authorities were pressured to allow him to return to the school.

How does China discriminate against people with disabilities in the field of education?

According to official statistics, more than a quarter of China’s children with disabilities are not in school at all. Some children with mild disabilities are in mainstream schools, but we found that they are not getting an adequate education. Without the help they need, they may have difficulty hearing the teacher or reading textbooks, or face bullying by fellow students.

The Chinese government is obligated under the treaty it signed to develop an inclusive general education system fully accessible to children with disabilities, one in which all children benefit from learning and playing together. We found instead that many children with disabilities in China are excluded from mainstream schools or asked to leave because of their disabilities. Instead of getting the services they need, they have to adapt or leave.

Schools also fail to provide appropriate classroom accommodations to help children overcome barriers related to their disabilities. Parents told us of carrying their children up and down stairs to classrooms or bathrooms several times a day. No written notes are provided to children with hearing impairments, and no sign language instruction is available. Mainstream schools often do not provide visual aids, braille, electronic materials, or enlarged texts for children with impaired vision.

One parent told us that her autistic son’s teacher told her clearly that since she had brought her son to “a normal environment,” her son would have to adapt to the school, not the other way around. Other parents described having to sign written agreements with schools each year, freeing the schools of liability if the child with a disability were hurt while at school.

I’ve heard of people in China being rejected from universities because they have very mild disabilities, such as curvature of the spine or color blindness. Does this still happen?

The Chinese government maintains a system of physical examinations for secondary school students who wish to enter mainstream universities. During this process, people with disabilities are required to declare their disabilities, and the results of the medical exams are sent directly to the universities.

Government guidelines allow higher education institutions to bar or restrict access to students with what they refer to as certain physical and mental “defects.” The guidelines list fields of study for which applicants may be denied admission based on their disability, and fields of study for which they are “advised” not to apply. Many of the requirements appear irrelevant, while some others are not essential to success if the students get some accommodation and support.

For example, people with hearing impairments are advised not to study over a dozen subjects, including law, foreign languages, and literature. People with physical disabilities are advised against applying to more than forty fields, including environmental science and archeology. Police academies often reject applicants with any kind of disability, and people with blood diseases such as hemophilia can be denied entrance to universities.

The guidelines also authorize universities to impose more detailed restrictions. For example, Jimei University in Fujian Province stipulates that students who wish to study navigation technology must be “healthy and handsome men over 1.65 meters tall who can speak clearly, have normal liver function, have an uncorrected visual acuity of 5.0 in both eyes, and have no color blindness.”

In 2003, the government relaxed some of the restrictions, and the revised guidelines state that universities cannot deny admission to people with “disabilities of the limbs whose disabilities do not affect one’s learning of the applied profession,” a step in the right direction but flawed nonetheless. The wording still gives university administrators broad discretion to deny admission whenever they determine that a particular disability might “affect learning.”

For example, we interviewed a young man who was denied the opportunity to study English at the university of his choice because of his visual impairment. Others we interviewed told us that they had to lower their ambitions and aim for less prestigious universities or certain academic fields to avoid rejection because of their disabilities.

Why does the Chinese government maintain these policies?

According to the government’s introductory note to the current guidelines, the physical examination requirement and the restriction of university access for candidates with disabilities or illnesses is for their own “benefit.” The thinking is that certain disabilities or medical conditions will keep candidates from being able to complete the academic requirements for certain fields.

In addition, China’s mainstream education system is highly competitive, and students are evaluated not only for their academic abilities, but also for their physical capacities. As people with disabilities in China are referred to officially as “impaired and sick people” (canjiren), they don’t conform to this ideal in the competitive mainstream education system.

Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has spent significant resources on developing a parallel education system for people with disabilities. These special education schools generally have good resources, but they separate children with disabilities from other children. The approach conflicts not only with the government’s obligations under the treaty, but also with the opinion of organizations including UNICEF, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and other disability rights organizations, that students of all ability levels should study together.

The effect of having a parallel special education system is that special education schools often are considered the default options for children with disabilities, allowing the mainstream schools to justify excluding them and to make no effort to meet their needs.

While special education schools are well funded, the government devotes few financial resources to the education of children with disabilities in the mainstream system. Teachers in this system receive very little training in inclusive teaching methods, and they get little support if they try to make adjustments in their classrooms to accommodate children with disabilities. Teachers often have thirty to sixty children in a classroom, and they get no staff support for children with special needs.

Can you put China’s treatment of kids with disabilities compare to that of other countries?

Many of the challenges faced by children with disabilities in China are similar to those in other countries, such as denial of access to mainstream schools, or lack of outreach to parents about their children’s rights. But the Chinese government’s policies at the higher education level, such as requiring students to pass a physical examination, are discriminatory and not commonly seen in other countries.

In addition, the scale of the problem is clearly different in China: millions of children are affected. And, unlike many other developing countries, China has the resources to put an end to these barriers. The Chinese government has often promoted its ratification of the treaty and its achievement of ensuring nine years of compulsory education for all children, so it is essential for it to live up to these commitments.

Do people with disabilities have advocates in China and to what extent are they organized to combat discrimination?

There is the quasi-governmental China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), which was established in 1988 by Deng Pufang, who has paraplegia and is the son of the reformist leader Deng Xiaoping. The federation was meant to “represent, serve and manage” people with disabilities, and in effect it acts as an official body governing all matters related to people with disabilities, including education.

In our report, we found, though, that the federation has not reached out effectively to parents about their children’s education, or helped them identify and remove barriers in mainstream schools. Neither the federation nor the Education Ministry has addressed discrimination actively or ensured that mainstream schools make reasonable accommodation for children with disabilities.

Apart from the federation, a number of international and domestic organizations provide services to people with disabilities in China, and a handful of them focus on advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. But the Chinese government tightly controls freedom of association in China, and such organizations often find it’s difficult to attain legal registration with the Civil Affairs Ministry. Even if they are allowed to operate, they are closely monitored, and sometimes harassed.

In May, the director of Tianxiagong, a Nanjing-based organization with a focus on disability rights, was taken in for brief questioning by national security police. His computer and phone were confiscated.

Despite these challenges, organizations and advocates that work for the rights of people with disabilities are considered generally less sensitive than some other human rights advocates in the eyes of the government and thus allowed more space for advocacy.

In recent years, they have organized some really groundbreaking and innovative forms of activism in China—from filing lawsuits to staging creative performance art demonstrations to highlight the plight of people with disabilities. The disability advocacy community has been at the forefront of China’s civil society and has made a huge impact.

In 2011, Yirenping, a Beijing-based organization, helped Dong Li’na, a young woman who Beijing education authorities rejected because she was blind, to take qualification exams to become a radio host after she completed a college-level self-study course. Yirenping helped publicize her case widely and filed complaints with the Beijing Bureau of Education. The bureau finally promised to accommodate Dong. By using a software program that read the text aloud, she took and passed the series of exams starting in January 2012.

As a result, the Beijing Bureau of Education promised that such accommodation would be available to anyone with a visual impairment who wanted to take professional college-level qualifications exams in Beijing. Since then, a few other blind students have been provided with similar examinations for other subjects.

What do you feel needs to change about China’s policies toward people with disabilities, and what would such changes accomplish?

While the Chinese government has taken some important steps with respect to access to education, it’s still far from developing and implementing a truly inclusive education system. Inclusive education is a legal obligation, and benefits more than just students with disabilities. A system that meets the diverse needs of all students benefits all learners and is a means to achieve high-quality education and a more inclusive society.

The first thing the Chinese government can do immediately is repeal the guidelines for the physical examination of students seeking higher education, because they allow disability-based discrimination.

The next step is for the government to make an explicit commitment toward a truly inclusive education system by revising existing laws and regulations. An inclusive education system cannot be achieved overnight—to realize this goal the government needs to draw up a clear strategic plan, with specific indicators to measure access to education for children with disabilities.

Teachers and school administrators themselves are central to making such a plan work. The government should make sure that it provides financial and other resources, including adequately trained staff, to mainstream schools so that they can make reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities.

Reaching out to children with disabilities and their parents is another essential element of an effective plan for children with disabilities to attend mainstream schools. The Chinese government should develop outreach programs to inform parents of their children’s rights and education options.

The government also needs to engage them in this effort by establishing an independent body consisting of people with disabilities and of parents and representatives of children with disabilities. This body should monitor the school system’s compliance with relevant laws and regulations and receive complaints about discrimination and lack of reasonable accommodation at mainstream schools. To accomplish this, the government needs to remove restrictions on nongovernmental organizations.

Have there been success stories?

Some municipalities and provinces in China, especially in coastal regions, are making efforts toward a more inclusive education system. In Beijing, for example, the municipal government has announced that it will stop building more special education schools and instead will shift resources to integrate students into mainstream schools. It says it will improve the physical accessibility of mainstream schools and hire rehabilitation teachers to provide support to students with disabilities. According to press reports, Beijing municipal authorities have also established resource centers to provide support to teachers of students with disabilities in mainstream schools.

Inclusive education does not have to be costly. For example, modifications to teaching technique can make huge differences. In Beijing’s Chaoyang District, the Bureau of Education trains teachers to accommodate students with disabilities, according to press reports. Teachers are taught to avoid walking around the classroom while talking, to help students who have trouble hearing, and to consider the contrast of colors in designing teaching materials and presentations to help students with visual impairments. They are advised to pair students with hearing or visual impairments with those who can hear and see well to provide some assistance in class.

Hopefully, through these initiatives the national Ministry of Education will recognize that inclusive education can be achieved, make commitments to replicate successful projects nationally, and develop a national strategy on inclusive education.