Children With Disabilities Excluded in China

28 percent of children with disabilities receive no education at all
By Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
July 31, 2013 Updated: July 31, 2013

In Henan Province in China, the mother of a 9-year old boy who has ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) said the local village school would not enroll him because of his disabilities. She said, “This is because my child is different. Other children in the village who are at a worse [academic] level are all enrolled.”

The story is taken from a 75-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), titled “’As Long as They Let Us Stay in Class’: Barriers to Education for Persons with Disabilities in China,” which was released on July 15. This mother’s experience is typical in China. School administrators and teachers explain that they lack the resources to care for them or don’t want the added responsibility. Parents may even be told that their child “can’t learn,” or is “different from normal children” or “might affect other children,” according to the report.

“There should be no barriers for children with disabilities to go to mainstream schools like children without disabilities … The government lacks a strategy for attaining the goal of inclusive education,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW, July 15.

Children with disabilities are turned away, or coerced to leave. If the child is allowed to attend because the school can’t refuse to enroll the child, after a year or two, the parents will be asked to transfer the child to another school, says the report. The school will make minimal or no effort to provide accommodations for their disability. But according to the Chinese law, these children’s rights are being violated.

By law, all children in China who have reached the age of 6 must attend nine years of compulsory education. In addition, the 1990 Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities (LPDP) states that students with disabilities should have access to compulsory education and vocational training.

The report quotes frequently from the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international human rights treaty that China ratified in 2008. It guarantees non-discrimination and equal access: “People with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability.” This requirement applies to all levels of education: primary, secondary, higher education and vocational training.

However, the law is not actively enforced and it shows in the high illiteracy rates of persons with disabilities. According to the official statistics, “over 40 percent of people with disabilities [who number at least 83 million] are illiterate, and 15 million live on less than one dollar a day in the countryside,” says the report. A likely reason is that about 28 percent of children with disabilities are not receiving compulsory basic education, according to official statistics, while virtually all other children receive compulsory education.

Lack of Accommodation

The report concludes that the Chinese regime’s commitment to mainstream education for children and young persons with disabilities is little to nonexistent. “It continues to devote too few resources to the education of students with disabilities in mainstream schools while at the same time developing a parallel system of segregated special education schools.”

Because help from the government in training teachers and administrators in mainstream schools is not institutionalized, a child with disabilities must hope that his or her school has teachers and administrators, who out of the “goodness of their hearts” as one interviewee put it, will make special accommodations.

But those teachers are the exception and in those cases efforts are “inconsistent” and “sporadic at best,” says the report. Many students end up sitting through the curriculum with the rest of the class; because no effort is made to meet their learning needs, they don’t learn. Parents of students with intellectual disabilities or autism reported that “teachers intentionally ignored them due to their poor academic performance,” says the report.

A mother of a 15-year-old girl with multiple disabilities from Guangdong Province, said, “The teacher didn’t pay any attention to her, so she didn’t get any exams or homework, she just sat at school. The teacher didn’t care which parts she didn’t understand … Her eyesight is very bad … She was moved to the back of the class because she couldn’t follow the class.”

A mother of a boy with autism said she was told that because her son was brought to a normal environment, it is he who must adapt.

Children with visual impairments said they were not provided with visual aids, Braille or enlarged texts. The hearing impaired told HRW that no written notes were provided or sign language instruction used.

Special Education Schools

The report says that a large percentage of students with disabilities drop out of school or enroll in special education schools. There are 1,767 special education schools in China, according to the Ministry of Education. The number of special education schools is small for a country the size of China. These schools have trained teachers and are resourced and funded well. Most of the students interviewed who had transferred from mainstream schools said their teachers gave them better and more individualized support.

But the special education schools have many faults and drawbacks. The curriculum is limited and once in the special education system, there is little hope of crossing back to the mainstream school system. Higher education is mostly foreclosed as well. The report found that parents knew little about them. The severally disabled would not be admitted. Richardson argued that the isolation of these students is neither healthy for them nor good for the mainstream students either.

Being located generally in urban centers, they are especially hard to reach for students living in rural areas, where 75 percent of people with disabilities in China reside. Also, the special education schools may specialize in one kind of disability such as for the deaf. Students with other disabilities, notably students with autism, may have to travel long distances. Some children have to be removed from their families at a young age to study in these schools.

The conclusions in the report are derived from only 62 interviews in only 12 provinces. China has 32 “provinces,” using the term loosely, which includes 23 Provinces, 4 municipalities, 5 autonomous regions, and excludes the two special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Forty-seven of the interviews were conducted with children or their parents.

With such a tiny sample size, nothing reliable can be said statistically, and so when the study reports statistics, it uses official government sources, which HRW cautions cannot be totally trusted. However, the comments from the 47 children or parents can provide an appreciation of the barriers that children with disabilities face in China. This picture is only valid if the sample of interviewees is representative of the whole population of children with disabilities in China, which tallies to 750,000, based on numbers from the Ministry of Education cited in the report.

Higher Education

A common complaint made was the “lack of flexibility in the evaluation of student performance” in mainstream education. The exams are not modified to accommodate students with disabilities. In effect, it means that blind high school graduates are “barred from mainstream education” because Braille or electronic exam papers are generally unavailable to university entrance exams, called “gaokao,” although since 2008 the CRPD it legally must be provided.

Similarly, “Deaf students are severely disadvantaged as listening exams are a requirement for a national standardized English test required for university graduation,” says the report.

The Economist reported July 13 that some Chinese blind students now are requesting that accommodation be provided so they can take the gaokao. The article quotes a specialist in blind education, Han Ping at Beijing Union University, who says as a starter, blind students should be able to “sit the gaokao.” Translating a test paper into Braille should not be difficult, she said.

Finally, if a student with a disability manages to graduate secondary education, he or she faces another barrier to getting into college that seems to be unique to China, said Richardson.

All students applying to universities must submit results of a physical examination, where the student’s disability is reported. The regime has issued “guidelines” that allow universities to deny admissions to the university or to several academic fields based on physical or mental disabilities which are invitations to discriminate.

Traditionally, the blind have been steered to a vocation of massage therapy, while the hearing impaired are trained in the visual arts. “Students with disabilities who aspire to other professions face daunting challenges,” says the report.