China’s students routinely score among the highest on international tests, leading the U.S. and other nations to ask, what does the Chinese education system do that we do not?
83 million people with disabilities live in China. On paper, China recognizes their rights and, in particular, the imperative of providing them with an education. In 2008, the Chinese government ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Under this international treaty, China says it will provide equal access to education for children with disabilities as well as an “inclusive education system at all levels.” In the same year, the government passed the Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities (LPDP), which was to include “greater funding for the education of people with disabilities.
But the reality for individuals with disabilities in China is far less rosy than all this suggests. 40 percent are illiterate and 15 million live on less than a dollar a day in the countryside, says HRW’s report. While China prides itself on providing near-universal compulsory education for children at the primary level, only 28 percent of children with disabilities receive such.
That is, China has a long way to go in order to implement what it has promised to. HRW describes some of the realities that children with disabilities such as ADHD, intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities face in China:
Discrimination against children and young people with disabilities permeates all levels of education in the mainstream system. Schools sometimes deny enrollment outright, but they are often more subtle, convincing the parents to take their children out of the schools with a variety of arguments. Schools sometimes place conditions on parents, such as requiring that they accompany their children to and in school every day, before they allow their children to study in the schools. While Chinese laws and regulations contain provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, the provisions are often vague, fail to precisely define discrimination, and do not outline effective redress mechanisms.
Parents interviewed by HRW said they had to carry their children with physical disabilities up and down stairs (and, it is implied, attend school with them). Sign language is not used in classrooms and teachers do not provide written notes, so students who are deaf are shut out from instruction. Students who are blind or who have visual impairments are not provided with any accommodations such as written materials with magnified writing. Some schools simply exclude students with disabilities from taking examinations or do not grade their tests.
One mother interviewed for the report, Chen Yufei, was told by a school principal that they could not enroll her young son, who has ADHD and intellectual disabilities, because he would “affect other children.” She was only able to enroll him in another district’s special education school after paying a “hefty bribe.”
As the size of a typical class in Chinese schools is 30 to 60 students, “many students with disabilities literally find themselves sitting in classrooms without being able to follow the curriculum.” Many students end up in segregated, special schools; as these are fewer in number than mainstream schools, parents can be faced with two bad options, not sending a child to school at all or placing a young child in a residential setting. Students with severe disabilities are often excluded from attending school at all.
If they do attend school, most students with disabilities in China do not do so past the middle school level. Government guidelines restrict or prevent access to higher education institutions if students have certain physical and mental “defects.” Students with disabilities are more likely to end up in vocational schools and to be quickly tracked into specific jobs, with those who are blind trained in, for instance, massage therapy.
“Children with disabilities have the right to attend regular schools like all other children, and are entitled to support for their particular learning needs. But instead, some schools fail – or simply refuse – to provide these students what they need,” says HRW’s China director, Sophie Richardson, in the Guardian.
Much of the discrimination that Chinese students with disabilities face would be illegal in the U.S. where all such students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
For all that the Chinese government says it is doing for persons with disabilities, the reality is that, when it comes to education, China is in something like the dark ages. Even as educators in the U.S. and elsewhere marvel at the academic prowess of China’s students (many of whom are now coming to the U.S. for college), we need to keep in mind that China educates only some of its millions of children and that those with disabilities are too often simply left behind.
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