China Only Pretends to Educate Many of Its Disabled Children

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?

As a just-released report from Human Rights Watch shows, one thing that China fails to do is to educate students with disabilities.

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.

Photo from Thinkstock


Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


E. Talamante
E. Talamante4 years ago

That is sad, but even as advanced as we are here in the US, we still have issues with our disabled education system. I have seen this first-hand when I used to work as a Special Education teacher. They were expected to fail. I couldn't believe it, or accept it. They did as good and better than their peers when they found out that somebody believed in them.

Andy Walker
Past Member 4 years ago

No surprise,Western nations aren't perfect either.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W4 years ago

Thanks for posting

Kate C.
Kate Collier4 years ago

As a diabled person this makes me VERY angry. So many countries seem to forget basic human rights when it suits them. Grrr!

Laura Saxon
.4 years ago

Not surprised. China is very hard hearted when it comes to animals, children and the environment.

Andrea Jarich
Andrea J4 years ago

This really is sad. I know kids with autism have a hard time getting the services they need, but I'm not surprised that those with other disabilities have a hard time too. This makes me even more sad because I'm autistic and I'm doing wondering in school. I never went to a special school and I only was in special need classes when I was little. I know I wouldn't have been able to reach my full potential if I was in the Chinese school system, even though I could have kept up with the other students. The fact they won't give those with disabilities a chance to try is sad. Who knows? They might have their own Einstein among the disabled community, but will not be able to get it because of the segregation they have with disabled students. :(

Virginia Belder
Virginia Belder4 years ago


Ana Marija R.
ANA MARIJA R4 years ago

I'm not surprised. Let's be honest - this is worldwide problem. The only difference is color paper wrappers...

Beth Cook
Beth Cook4 years ago

why am I not surprised?