Many children with special needs in China are denied educational opportunities because China’s public schools are literally inaccessible to children with physical disabilities and they don’t have the resources to support children with mental disabilities. It is an unfortunate fact that many Chinese families view their children as their support network as they age. If a child has any disadvantage that would hamper their ability to provide for their parents when they are adults, parents often have to make the heartwrenching decision to put the child up for adoption and try again. While many children with disabilities could still be productive adults capable or caring for their parents, that possibility becomes nearly impossible without access to education.
As an aside, this is a problem not just in China but worldwide, that people with disabilities earn less money than their able-bodied counterparts. In America, disabled people earn on average 68 cents for every dollar their non-disabled counterparts earn, while in the UK, disabled persons often earn as little a 40 cents on the dollar compared to non-disabled workers. Of course, in those countries, that is an employment issue. When it comes to education, both countries are much better at making sure all children – no matter their disability – have access to schooling. In China, when a child does not have access to education, the chance that the child will then be able to have a productive career is almost non-existent.
But there are even more hurdles for families in China trying to access education for their children. When the public schools are not an option, some families with the means will turn to private schools. These schools are usually much smaller with many more resources than public schools. And since they are for-profit, they generally will do whatever they can to accommodate families with special requests.
But sometimes those “special requests” clash when it comes to children with special needs – and there is significant prejudice and ignorance when it comes to children with special needs.
Our daughter has unique challenges, but we found a fantastic kindergarten in Yangshuo for her. The school’s principal used to work in the adoption field, so she really understands our daughter’s needs. The teachers are very kind and patient and go out of their way to make sure our daughter gets the most out of her classes. The classes are also very small, which has given our daughter the chance to improve her social skills in a way that is not overwhelming for her. It has been a wonderful experience and in the six months she has been going to school, she has made remarkable improvements.
But apparently, things were not going so smoothly behind the scenes.
The school’s principal told me yesterday that there is another mother with a daughter with special needs who would like to attend the school. Some of the other mothers found out about this and have vehemently objected to admitting the child, even going so far as to say that they will remove their children from the school if she is admitted. These mothers believe that the child with special needs will have a “negative effect” on their own children.
I was very surprised because our daughter has been attending for several months. The other mothers must see this and know that having a special needs child in a class does not hurt the other children. It is usually the other way around. The children who are more able are able to help the children who need the extra attention. I asked her if there was anything we could do to help. But that was when she dropped the bombshell.
I am sure the shock and anger showed on my face because she was quick to tell me that we didn’t need to worry about it. She could handle the other mothers. The implication was that since we are foreigners, our daughter’s enrollment in the school is not up for debate. Even in a country where we are a significant minority, our white privilege is strong. But since the other mother is Chinese, the other mothers feel they have the right to bully her and her daughter out of the school.
I share stories like this to better exemplify the challenges parents in China face when their children have disabilities. Many times, even money cannot overcome prejudice and ignorance. It will take a drastic overhaul in both policy and attitudes before parents in China will be able to access quality education for their very special children.