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China Struggles to Educate People With Disabilities

Editor's Note: This article is taken from the website of the National Organization on Disability, July 12, 2004:

I recently visited the magnificent and unique country of China. I participated in this June's 2004 China-US Conference on Educating Students with Special Needs. There were six areas of discussion on ways to improve special education programs for Chinese and American students with disabilities. My focus was Assistive Technology and Technology for Personnel Preparation.

The technology sessions were introductory sessions for Chinese administrators, teachers and students working in special education. The Chinese attendees soaked up the knowledge like a sponge. They enthusiastically asked questions about braille products, keyless keyboards, foot pedals, Eyegaze communications, text-to-speech, wheelchairs, cochlear implants, bionics and programs to assist people with learning disabilities. Their zeal doubled as they discovered the myriad ways the web provides information on these products. However, their fervour cooled when they heard that these products range from $300 to $15,000. Those figures are far more daunting to them than to Americans.

"Individual students can't afford them," a soft-spoken student sadly told me.

Still, more than a dozen Chinese participants asked me to email them my Power Point presentation showing 12 assistive technology products and their web addresses. They were eager to learn more about these products through the internet. "The internet is a great resource for learning what America is doing in the special education area," says Professor Zheng Jian of Chongqing Normal University. She uses the internet to stay informed of U.S. education and government activities in the special education area. Websites she visits often include those for the Council for Exceptional Children and the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America.

Jian believes the internet is a great teaching tool for students with special needs, and that online education can reduce educational costs.

With more than 1.2 billion people, China is the most populated country in the world. The Chinese know they have a huge disability population, but they do not know the exact number of people with disabilities requiring special education courses. According to Xu Jiacheng, President of the Special Education College of Beijing Union University (SECBUU), the numbers of students in China requiring special needs programs number in the millions. Some believe the number of students with special needs exceed 100 million.

The Chinese know they must increase the education and training of huge numbers of students with disabilities if they are to compete for jobs and raise their standard of living in a country where the average annual income for more than three quarters of the population is less than $800.

To expand the number of special needs students who are getting the services they need, the Chinese must increase spending on a national level. A $2 million annual budget for special needs students is not enough.

"Inclusiveness is our goal in educating students with special needs," said Weng Ruimin, Deputy Director, China Association for Science and Technology (CAST).

When speaking of inclusiveness, the Chinese usually refer to students who are deaf, blind or have a speech language challenge.

When speaking about inclusiveness and special education programs, the Chinese speak with pride about SECBUU. Established in the summer of 2000, SECBUU is China's first independent, comprehensive special education institution training special education teachers, providing higher vocational education for students with disabilities, and guidance and teaching. There are three departments: Special Education, Art, and Biology and Medicine.

The special education major is a four-year course aimed at training the "first line" teachers in special education schools who will teach special education students coming from elementary and junior high schools through China's nine-year compulsory education program.

The Hearing and Language two-year-program is offered to language training teachers possessing higher professional and technical diplomas or certificates.

The four-year Art Design program trains students who are deaf in advertising, decorative design and environmental art design. The school uses Macintosh-g4 microcomputers and the students learn advanced photography, design and production, as well as how to use coloured printing.

Additionally for deaf students, there is also a three-year Decorating and Advertisement Design program where students learn to develop art talents using computer-aided industry program. There is a three-year office automation program where the students learn to work with a variety of software. Another program for deaf students is a three-year Gardening program where students learn how to develop a garden and grasslands and to plant, conserve, manage and cultivate flowers, shrubbery and trees.

How do deaf students react to these programs? Through an interpreter, a deaf student told me, "Because of the training I receive here, when I leave, I believe I have a future."

In each of the programs the students work with hearing individuals. Signing is prevalent among deaf students and teachers working with them. The students I spoke to wanted to know more about signing avatars.

There is a three-year program where blind students master piano tuning and maintenance and develop their piano skills. There is a four-year acupuncture and massage program, where students learn traditional Chinese medicine theory and clinical massage skills.

Hundreds of deaf and blind students graduate yearly from special education colleges in China. They are equipped to work either in special education areas or the private sector. Still, there are tens of thousands of deaf or blind young men and women who are not graduating.

China's culture is not geared to taking huge numbers of people with disabilities into the private sector job market. Travelling in Beijing and the surrounding countryside, the only people with visible disabilities whom I saw were individuals using wheelchairs. Most were makeshift wheelchairs. Few in China have ever even seen a motorized wheelchair. Their price and maintenance requirements make them an unlikely dream for most who would benefit from them.

The Chinese have a large population with autism. "We want to know how assistive technology can help students with autism communicate," says Tian Huiping, founder and director of the Stars and Rain Institute for Autism in Beijing. She has a daughter with autism.

There is an awareness in China that assistive technology can play a major role in improving the lives of Chinese people with disabilities. One of the goals among special education teachers is establishing an assistive technology training centre in Beijing. Their goal is to open it next year with the assistance of AT manufacturers. The centre will train teachers and students to use the products.

How will such a center be viewed? Li Dong Mei, Director, China Disabled Persons' Federation, Department of Education and Employment, told me, "The centre can create jobs for students with special needs and teachers."

The Chinese believe that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and they have taken a first step by learning about assistive technology. They believe access to tomorrow's AT will take them miles farther.


Your article is very informative. I am very interested to have a training on special education to teach people with disabilities. Can you please single out some schools/institutions in the Southern part of China which offers a special education training. Thank you so much.

your article is very informative. I am very interested to have a training on special education to teach people with disabilities. Can you please single out some schools/institutions in the Southern part of China which offers a special education training. Thank you so much.

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.