By Journal Student Writer Tai Blas
Access to education and employment are issues of fairness and justice in the United States. Scholars in other countries are trying to raise these justice issues to form inclusive cultures for people with disabilities. During spring break, a friend and I visited Renmin University Law School in Beijing, China. My friend is a law student at Harvard Law School. She is deafblind and I am blind. The goal of our visit was to explore ways of increasing the number of individuals with disabilities in the legal profession in China. Renmin University recently established a disability law clinic and is working in conjunction with the Harvard Project on Disability which seeks to promote disability human rights. Renmin University is committed to this admirable goal, despite many obstacles to the education and full inclusion of people with disabilities in China.
Article 45 of the Chinese Constitution states that “all citizens … have the right to material assistance from the state and society when they are old, ill or disabled.” China has established a welfare system which provides disabled citizens with minimal subsistence payments. China also has a law regarding the “Protection of Disabled Persons.” Although issues of liability commonly arise in regard to disability in the United States, liability is of even more concern in China. After I arrived at the Beijing airport, I tried to hale a taxi to take me to my hotel. The airport staff would not let me leave the airport unaccompanied unless I wrote and signed a letter stating that the airport would not be liable for any misfortune that might befall me. Similarly, I was not permitted to travel to the Great Wall on a snowy day, despite the fact that I have lived in snowy climates all of my life and frequently ski, hike, and snowshoe in slick and inclement weather.
Although the China Disabled Persons’ Federation reports that seventy-seven percent of blind, deaf, and intellectually disabled students were enrolled in either mainstream or special education schools in 2000, parents of students with disabilities report challenges to enrolling their children in mainstream schools. Due to liability concerns, disabled students cannot attend mainstream schools unless a family member or friend accompanies them, something that is difficult for most working families. Consequently, most people with disabilities in China have only a basic education. Disabled students in China are unable to complete standardized tests throughout their education because the government only allows students to complete tests in hard-copy, paper form. The government refuses to provide any accommodations to students such as the use of a computer; wheelchair accessible rooms; Braille, large print, and audio files of written course materials; or the use of a reader to recite exam prompts and write down the disabled student’s verbal response. The Harvard Project on Disability and Renmin University’s disability law clinic are assisting the Chinese Ministry of Education to move to a more inclusive education system for students with disabilities.
In many countries, people with disabilities rarely travel independently. In attempting to speak with disabled individuals, I found that their disabilities were a source of shame not to be discussed, even among others with disabilities. Despite right to work laws, employment quotas, and antidiscrimination laws specific to people with disabilities, my friend and I learned that all blind people are expected to enter the fields of massage or piano tuning. Blind people describe the most significant barriers to education and employment as the inability to take required standardized tests, the lack of accommodations in education, and the difficulty involved in accessing useful technology. If China will not allow changes in its standardized testing methods, schools should have discretion to waive testing requirements for promising individuals with disabilities so they can pursue higher education.
China does not provide independent living training to its disabled population because their families are expected to care for them. Consequently, people with disabilities rarely work or leave their family homes. During our visit, we educated law students, lawyers, disabled people, and their families about the training available in the United States, and we are hopeful that some will visit our training centers. We also discussed antidiscrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act which guarantee access to educational institutions and places of employment.
Unlike the United States, China has passed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While this is encouraging, it does not guarantee that individuals with disabilities will have increased access to employment and educational opportunities. When my friend and I spoke with parents of disabled children, many concerns arose, ranging from the struggle to access education to protecting their children’s financial well-being. First, parents wanted their children to have the right to attend school without the supervision of a family member. Second, parents want the ability to set up trusts for their disabled children, an option currently accessible to only the wealthiest Chinese parents who can afford to arrange trusts with offshore banks. Third, the parents want to ensure that their disabled children will receive their portion of the family inheritance. Nondisabled children often misappropriate resources that parents set aside for their disabled children. The ability to set up a will is another option which is rarely available to parents.
I believe the Chinese government could reallocate some of its resources to better serve individuals with disabilities. For example, China has built expensive separate walkways for the blind on most, if not all, sidewalks. However, since blind people do not receive adequate training in how to travel independently, these expensive walkways go unused. Instead, they become parking strips for bicycles, motorcycles, and cars. This is just one of many examples of misallocated funding. The government could then use the funds that had been dedicated to the unused walkways for more beneficial purposes. First, the government could use the funds to create training centers to help those with disabilities learn to live independently. Second, the funds could be used to purchase technology that would allow disabled students to participate in public education. Finally, these funds could be used to make buildings more accessible by adding wheelchair accessible fixtures and Braille signage.
Critics may assert that accommodation technology is too expensive to implement in Chinese schools. If that is the case, then Renmin University could create an inexpensive accommodation: find highly qualified students to attend classes with disabled students to help with notetaking and in-class assignments. Other options include using older or refurbished computers, typewriters, outdated but functional adaptive technology, books on tape or CD, assisted listening devices, magnification, or human readers to convey information from textbooks. Although such accommodations are not ideal, these were the types of accommodations people with disabilities in the United States received before Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. With such inexpensive accommodations, students with disabilities could succeed. Decades ago, determined blind attorneys passed bar exams in the United States, well before the creation of antidiscrimination laws. China must start somewhere. The pioneering law students with disabilities who will participate in the Renmin University disability law clinic could change the status quo. Now is the time for equal access to education!!