Campaigners in China struggle to improve the lot of the disabled
Long ostracised, growing numbers of disabled people are demanding their rights
In 2011, when China’s most recent available census data were published, over 85m people—about one in 16—were classified as disabled (including 21m who were deaf and 13m blind.)
That compares with one in five in Britain and one in eight in America. Unlike in the West, China’s definition of disabled does not cover those with chronic illnesses. It also excludes many people who have use of their limbs, but struggle with routine tasks.
Of those who meet the census definition of disabled, far fewer than half have the government certificates that are needed to obtain disability support such as reduced medical fees and tax breaks.
And even among people with the required documentation, only 12m (around one-third) last year received the living allowance to which the disabled with low incomes are entitled. That is striking given that many of the 85m people counted as disabled are poor. Three in four live in rural areas.
Improvements are evident. In 2008 less than two-thirds of disabled children aged six to 14 were being educated. Last year 95% were. In 2012 a quarter of working-age Chinese certified as disabled had jobs.
By 2018 this rate had doubled. In 2008, just before hosting the Paralympic games, China ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Japan did so in 2014 and America still has not.
In education, two particular developments have been celebrated by campaigners for disability rights. The first was the adoption in 2015 of a regulation allowing disabled students to take the gaokao, or university-entrance exam, with “reasonable” adjustments including test papers in Braille and extra time to finish.
Two years later this dispensation was also applied to those taking the zhongkao, the exam for senior secondary-schools. In 2018 the parents of a pupil with cerebral palsy won a case against the education bureau of Xiamen, the coastal city where he lives. The court ruled that the bureau had been wrong to deny some of his requests for special dispensations in the zhongkao.
The second development was a decision in 2017 to encourage mainstream schools to accept disabled students. This ended a long-standing policy of segregating them. But the impact of these measures has been limited. Of 9m people admitted to mainstream universities in 2019, just 12,000 were disabled, or one in 750. By contrast, one in five students in America report having a disability.
In employment, huge barriers also remain. Firms with more than 30 staff are required to give at least 1.5% of their positions to the disabled. But they worry that hiring them could harm their image. A survey in 2011 by the CDPF revealed that more than 90% of companies preferred to pay a fine.
After bigger fines were imposed on more profitable firms in 2015, some companies began adding disabled people to their payrolls—paying basic wages and making social-security contributions but giving them no work. This illegal practice has been facilitated by agencies that demand high fees from disabled clients who get the sinecures.
Blind people in China are still often shunted into jobs as masseurs or piano tuners. Recently, however, the CDPF has been encouraging them to try other work. It has publicised the case of Ma Yinqing, a visually-impaired 26-year-old in Shanghai, who has set up a business that employs blind people to record audio books.
This year she plans to start a podcast in which blind guests chat to her about their lives. The federation has also drawn attention to Sun Chenlu, a paralysed beauty vlogger who live-streams from her wheelchair (her account has 26,000 followers).
Opportunities for the mentally disabled, though, are very rare. Cao Jun set up a car-washing business in Shenzhen in 2015 to employ such people, his son among them. His idea has been replicated in two dozen cities with the support of NGOs or local offices of the CDPF. “My aim is to get rid of the donation box,” says Mr Cao. He returns all tips.