A new report from China’s education ministry says the government has achieved its goal to build one special education school for every 300,000 people across the country. Beijing has spent US$836 million on “the largest special education school construction project since the founding” of the People’s Republic of China by building and expanding more than 1,000 such schools. It also claims that in these schools, there are increasing numbers of teachers trained to work with children with disabilities and that the student-teacher ratios are improving.

A wheelchair stands outside a classroom in the Beichuan Middle School in China's Sichuan province May 10, 2011. © 2011 Reuters

Why isn’t this necessarily good news?

Investing those resources in segregated schools for children with disabilities – at the expense of devoting more resources to maximizing inclusion in mainstream, regular schools for all children – is the wrong strategy. It rejects the “full inclusion” requirements of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which China ratified in 2008, and best practices as identified by the international disability rights community. It reinforces rather than mitigates stigma against children with disabilities, and it arbitrarily narrows the opportunities for higher education and employment that children with disabilities may wish to pursue.

The report notes that Beijing has devoted some resources for inclusive education in regular schools by setting up “resource rooms” for students with disabilities. In two provinces, it is providing extra subsidies to teachers of children with disabilities.

But efforts at inclusion appear to have received far less support than measures geared towards segregation, and, alarmingly, the report acknowledges that the “study along with the class” program to mainstream students with disabilities in regular schools is “shrinking” and “its quality is worrying.”

While it is essential that education is delivered in the most appropriate languages, modes of communication, and environments that maximize a child’s potential – including special schools in some circumstances – this should be a meaningful choice for the child and not because an inclusive education system is not functional or reasonable accommodations in regular schools have not been provided.

To make a clear commitment towards inclusive education, Beijing should train teachers in mainstream schools to educate and support children with disabilities. It should make simple but critical physical improvements to mainstream schools, such as ensuring that all floors have accessible classrooms and restrooms. And it should establish an independent body, one made up of experts with disabilities and representatives of children with disabilities and their families, to monitor school compliance with existing requirements. The government should adopt all appropriate measures to provide support and human resources for these initiatives.

Meaningful inclusion is not achieved through construction of segregated facilities. It is made real when all children across the country – regardless of their abilities or disabilities – have equal access to education at all levels. That would be an achievement worth celebrating.