Make Inclusive Education a Reality by Addressing Barriers in School
July 15, 2013
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.
Sophie Richardson, China director

(New York) – Children with disabilities face significant hurdles in accessing education in China, and a substantial number of them receive no education at all, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In higher education, government guidelines allow universities to restrict or bar access to applicants and students with certain physical or mental disabilities.

There are at least 83 million people with disabilities in China, according to official statistics. Over 40 percent of them are illiterate. While government figures show near universal enrollment of children in primary school, there is a large gap for children with disabilities: 28 percent of such children are not receiving the basic education to which they are entitled.

The 75-page report, “‘As Long as They Let Us Stay in Class’: Barriers to Education for Persons with Disabilities in China,” documents the struggles of children and young people with disabilities to be educated in mainstream schools in their communities.

The Human Rights Watch report is based on more than 60 interviews, mostly with children and young people with disabilities, and their parents, and draws on government data and expert policy assessments. The Chinese government has adopted regulations and rules on the education of people with disabilities, promised to raise the enrollment rate of children with disabilities, and waived miscellaneous school fees for them. Yet the report details the ways schools deny these students admission, pressure them to leave, or fail to provide appropriate classroom accommodations to help them overcome barriers related to their disabilities. 

“Children with disabilities have the right to attend regular schools like all other children, and are entitled to support for their particular learning needs,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But instead, some schools fail – or simply refuse – to provide these students what they need.”

In an important step, the Chinese government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2008, which obliges it to develop an inclusive education system in which the general education system is fully accessible to children with disabilities, and in which all children benefit from learning and playing together. Research has shown that students with and without disabilities achieve better academic results in inclusive environments, when given adequate support. 

Currently, children with disabilities are excluded from mainstream schools unless they can demonstrate the “ability to adapt” to the schools’ physical and learning environment. While inclusion cannot be achieved overnight, the Chinese government lacks a clear and consistent strategy towards this objective, and devotes few resources to educating students with disabilities in the mainstream school system.

The government is obligated to ensure that schools provide “reasonable accommodations” to students with disabilities to limit the effects their impairments have on their performance, unless such accommodations impose significant difficulty or expense on the government. But Human Rights Watch found little to no accommodation in mainstream schools for these students at all stages of education. One parent was explicitly told by the school that since her child is in “a normal environment,” it is the child with the disability who must adapt, not the other way round; another parent said she spent her days carrying her child up and down stairs as the classroom and the bathroom are at different floors. Some children were entirely ignored because teachers in mainstream schools do not know how to adjust to their needs, having received little to no training on inclusive education.

Students with disabilities who manage to overcome these barriers to reach higher education face additional obstacles. According to government policy, students must go through physical examinations, the results of which are sent to universities as part of the admissions process. The government also has guidelines allowing universities to restrict or bar access to candidates with certain physical or mental disabilities. For example, people with visual impairments can be denied admission to a dozen academic fields and are advised against dozens of others, including law and ecology.  

While students with disabilities have access to special education schools, which are generally well-equipped, these school segregate students with disabilities from the general population, require many children to be removed from their families at a young age, and offer limited opportunities beyond junior middle school.

Teachers are essential to realizing inclusive education, but most interviewees told Human Rights Watch that teachers in mainstream schools rarely adjust the teaching methods to meet the needs of children with disabilities. There is little institutional support for teachers – they have no support staff, they often have large class sizes of 30 to 60 students, and they lack training in inclusive teaching methods, while their schools receive little to no funding from the education authorities for providing accommodations.

“In any classroom, children have a range of learning abilities, and teachers need to have the skills to encourage all kids to learn and develop,” Richardson said. “Expanding teacher training alone would go a long way towards mitigating some of the problems of exclusion.”

The report also documents the failure of the quasi-governmental body China Disabled People’s Federation (CDPF) and the Ministry of Education to address discrimination, to ensure reasonable accommodation in mainstream schools, and to inform parents and children with disabilities of their educational rights and options.

Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to develop a clear strategic plan towards a truly inclusive education system. It should also revise existing laws and regulations in line with its obligations under the CRPD. The 1994 Regulations of Education of Persons with Disabilities is currently under revision, and while the draft revision includes a number of improvements, it still does not fulfill the government’s legal obligations under the CRPD.

Human Rights Watch also urged the government to formulate a policy of reasonable accommodation consistent with the CRPD, set up a mechanism to monitor and provide effective redress in cases of discrimination, and develop outreach programs to support parents so they are informed of their children’s rights and education options.

“Inclusive education isn’t just a legal obligation,” Richardson said. “It’s also critical to combating stereotyping and discrimination, and to building a tolerant and inclusive society.”

Selected Testimonies 
To protect their identities, please note that all individuals’ names below are pseudonyms.

The primary school near us wouldn’t enroll us. I went several times but they wouldn’t let him in… I have been especially angry because of this... This is because my child is different.
– Interview with mother of a 9-year-old boy who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and intellectual disability, Henan province, January 2013

I have a student who was paid so little attention by the teachers between primary one and three that he felt he was like “a sheep put out to pasture.” …When he was in primary four, one teacher discovered that when he magnified the exam papers, the child performed very well, so he then made large prints of the exam papers for this student… This kind of support is not ensured by the system, but stops at the level of awareness and goodness of the hearts of the teachers.
– Phone interview with a scholar who studies inclusive education, April 2013

She wants to study, and she’s cried about it. She graduated from primary school, but she cannot continue… She could go to junior high school, but the school is too far away. She can’t walk there but she also doesn’t know how to ride a bike.
– Interview with the grandmother of a 13-year-old girl with multiple disabilities, Guangdong province, December 2012

"Students with disabilities in the torso or the limbs… are not admitted.”
– The 2009 enrollment charter of Capital Medical University, a prestigious public university in Beijing

“Healthy and handsome men over 1.65 meters tall who can speak clearly, have normal liver function, have an uncorrected visual acuity of 5.0 in both eyes, and have no color blindness.”
– Enrollment requirement for navigation technology for Jimei University in Fujian province

After I found out that I wasn’t enrolled even though I had the required scores, I called their enrollment office. They said “because of your physical conditions, you are not suitable for studying this subject.” …I felt pretty down at the time, but I didn’t argue. I am used to discrimination against people with disabilities, and I didn’t think there were ways to change their views.
– Telephone interview with a 26-year-old man with low vision due to albinism, May 2013

When [mainstream] schools refuse to accept children with disabilities, they send them to the China Disabled People’s Federation (CDPF) for an evaluation. For all those who have [CDPF-issued] disability cards, the CDPF makes them go to the local special education primary school… this is illegal!… [The CDPF] should help persons with disabilities to defend their rights! They should have resolutely prohibited [mainstream] schools from doing so! But the CDPF is doing the opposite.
– Interview with a staff member of the China Disabled People’s Federation, Guangdong province, February 2013