(New York) – New Chinese government regulations encourage mainstream education for students with disabilities, but do not provide adequate pathways for achieving that aim, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 23, 2017, the Chinese government released long-awaited Regulations of Education of Persons with Disabilities to replace the out-of-date 1994 regulations.

A blind girl reads Braille text in her class at the Shanghai School for the Blind.

© 2007 Reuters/Nir Elias

The new regulations are unlikely to substantially change the current environment in which mainstream schools only admit children with physical disabilities or mild forms of other disabilities, and bar admission to many others. More positively, the regulations do mandate local governments to plan and allocate adequate funding and resources to the education of people with disabilities; stipulate teacher training, evaluation, and promotion; and require that schools develop individualized educational plans for students with disabilities.

“While international standards have influenced the new regulations, China still imposes discriminatory obstacles for children with disabilities to be placed in mainstream schools,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “After nearly a decade to implement these standards, children with disabilities will still too often be segregated in a separate educational system.”

China’s Ministry of Education has long operated parallel systems of education for persons with disabilities: mainstream schools in which students with disabilities “study along with the class,” and special education schools in which students with disabilities are segregated according to types of disabilities. While state media reports say the revisions were aimed to fulfill China’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which it ratified in 2008, these practices are at odds with the convention, which require that governments “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels.”

In a 2013 report, Human Rights Watch found that even when students with disabilities were placed in mainstream schools, they were often given little accommodation or systematic support. In one case, a girl with intellectual and visual disabilities was placed in the back of the class, rather than the simple accommodation of seating her in the front where she could see the teacher and the board. Many students with disabilities find themselves in classrooms without adequate support and with little assistance from teachers to participate meaningfully in the curriculum or classroom activities. The failure of schools to provide reasonable accommodations to children regardless of their disability is discriminatory.

While international standards have influenced the new regulations, China still imposes discriminatory obstacles for children with disabilities to be placed in mainstream schools.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

In its General Comment No. 4 on the right to education, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities specifies that integration, whereby children with disabilities are placed in mainstream schools without changes to curriculum, teaching, or learning strategies, does not constitute inclusion.

Although the new Chinese regulations affirm that mainstream education is the preferred method for students with disabilities (article 3), they also require that children with disabilities be evaluated by a quasi-governmental Expert Committee on the Education of Persons with Disabilities, and placed according to their “physical conditions and ability to be educated and adapt to [mainstream] schools” (articles 17-21).

Human Rights Watch’s 2013 report found that similarly vague standards allowed schools to arbitrarily deny admission to persons with disabilities. This is inconsistent with the convention, which obligates governments to ensure that “persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability.” As the committee has stated, “the education system must provide a personalized educational response, rather than expecting the student to fit the system.”

An inclusive approach to education focuses on identifying and removing the barriers to learning, and changing practices in schools to provide “reasonable accommodation” to meet the diverse needs of individual students, including those with disabilities. “Reasonable accommodation” is defined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as “necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden.” Although China’s new regulations mention several times that students with disabilities should be “accommodated” (articles 22, 36, and 52), and in one instance use the term “reasonable accommodation” in reference to providing support during examinations, they fail to specify the kinds of accommodation or support these students are entitled to, making it difficult for parents and students to seek redress when such accommodation is not provided.

In practice, this may mean that students with, for example, a physical disability may still be barred from a mainstream school because of the school’s refusal to hold classes on the ground floor or have accessible toilet facilities inside the school.

The regulations state that higher education institutions “should admit those students with disabilities who meet the admission requirements of the state” (article 34). But the government still requires all students applying to universities to submit the results of a detailed physical examination, including having a disability, enabling the universities to discriminate against applicants with disabilities. A joint 2003 guidelines document issued by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, and the Chinese Disabled Persons Federation allows schools to reject candidates if they have certain categories of “physiological defects” or “mental disorders.” In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a student with a visual disability was denied his top choice studying English because he failed the physical examinations. The Ministry of Education should repeal the Guidelines for the Physical Examination of Students in Recruitment for Ordinary Higher Level Educational Institutions that sanction disability-based discrimination in higher education.

In recent years, disability advocates have urged the Ministry of Education to provide reasonable accommodation during government exams, with success. There have also been cases of students with disabilities being admitted into universities after their rejections from other institutions were reported by the press.

“The Chinese government can’t claim victory in improving education for children with disabilities while still systematically discriminating against them in higher education,” Richardson said. “While China has taken some modest steps toward respecting the rights of children with disabilities, it still has a long way to go to meet its obligations under the convention.”