The school near us wouldn’t enroll him … why wouldn’t they let us go to school? Everyone is entitled to nine years of compulsory education, right?
—Mother of Chen Yufei, Henan Province, January 2013.
The mother of Chen Yufei tried hard to find a school for her son, a nine-year-old boy with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and an intellectual disability. When Chen was 7 she brought him to a nearby school, but the principal would not let him enroll because he would “affect other children.” Reluctant, Chen’s mother turned to special education schools, but she could not find one: the district in which they live did not have one. Eventually she got Chen accepted in a special education school in another district — after two years and a hefty bribe. She still bitterly resents this experience, as she believes her son would make much better progress if he were in a mainstream school.
Across China, children and young people with disabilities confront discrimination in schools. This report documents how mainstream schools deny many such children admission, ask them to leave, or fail to provide appropriate classroom accommodations to help them overcome barriers related to their disabilities. While children with mild disabilities are in mainstream schools where they continue to face challenges, children with more serious disabilities are excluded from the mainstream education system, and a significant number of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch receive no education at all.
Internationally, there is a growing recognition that “inclusion” — making mainstream education accessible for children with disabilities — is a key element in realizing the right to education. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the most recent international human rights treaty, mandates that state parties “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels.”
By ratifying the CRPD in 2008, the Chinese government made a commitment to “the goal of full inclusion.” Yet it has no clear and consistent strategy to achieve that goal. It continues to devote too few resources to the education of students with disabilities in mainstream schools while at the same time actively developing a parallel system of segregated special education schools. Inclusive education is not just a legal obligation, and it benefits not only students with disabilities — a system that meets the diverse needs of all students benefits all learners and is a means to achieve high-quality education and more inclusive society. While an inclusive education system cannot be achieved overnight, the Chinese government’s current policies and practices raise questions about the extent of its commitment to do so.
The Chinese government has taken important steps to promote the rights of people with disabilities. Internationally, it was supportive of the development and adoption of the CRPD. Domestically, it passed the Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities (LPDP), which outlines the rights of people with disabilities as well as a number of regulations on disability. It has pledged greater funding for the education of people with disabilities and has taken steps such as waiving miscellaneous school fees to facilitate their access to education.
However, a closer look at education for people with disabilities reveals a grimmer picture. According to official statistics, over 40 percent of people with disabilities are illiterate and 15 million live on less than one dollar a day in the countryside. The Chinese government has an impressive record in providing primary education for children without disabilities, achieving near-universal compulsory education for such children. But according to official statistics, the rate for children with disabilities is much lower: about 28 percent of such children should be receiving compulsory basic education but are not.
The Chinese government has often been considered a model in reaching the Millennium Development Goal regarding the provision of primary education to all children — but the picture dramatically changes if the data are disaggregated to focus on enrollment rates for children with disabilities. Bars to enrollment, expulsion from schools, and lack of adequate support in mainstream schools, as well as lack of information about and trouble reaching special education schools, are the main reasons for the enrollment gap.
Discrimination against children and young people with disabilities permeates all levels of education in the mainstream system. Schools sometimes deny enrollment outright, but they are often more subtle, convincing the parents to take their children out of the schools with a variety of arguments. Schools sometimes place conditions on parents, such as requiring that they accompany their children to and in school every day, before they allow their children to study in the schools. While Chinese laws and regulations contain provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, the provisions are often vague, fail to precisely define discrimination, and do not outline effective redress mechanisms.
The Chinese government also does not have a clear policy on “reasonable accommodation” in mainstream schools — defined in the CRPD as “necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden.” In interviews with Human Rights Watch, parents told of carrying their children up and down stairs to classrooms or bathrooms located upstairs several times a day. Students with hearing impairments said they could not follow along because the teachers walk around while teaching and do not to provide written notes, and there is no sign language instruction in most schools. They told us that students who are blind or who have limited vision are not provided with magnified printed materials or tests. Some mainstream schools exclude students with disabilities from the examination system; they do not get graded and their progress is not otherwise evaluated. In some rural areas, the government’s policy of consolidating mainstream schools in recent years has had a negative effect on students with disabilities, as schools to which they are assigned are further away and provide no transportation.
While some teachers and principals in mainstream schools make Herculean efforts to provide reasonable accommodation to students with disabilities — out of the “goodness of their hearts,” as one interviewee put it — such support is not institutionalized. In both policy and practice, the mainstream education system is set up in such a way that the teacher’s focus is on students without disabilities; it is the child with a disability who is expected to adapt to the system.
Teachers find that the burden of supporting students with disabilities rests entirely on their shoulders, as they are provided with little support to ensure reasonable accommodations in the classrooms. There is no staff support to assist the teachers, who often have to teach large classes of 30 to 60 students. Training for teachers and administrators in mainstream schools is limited and little funding goes to ensure that such schools are adequately resourced to educate these students. There is also little incentive for teachers to provide support to students with disabilities because doing so does not impact their performance ratings or prospects for promotion.
As a result, many students with disabilities literally find themselves sitting in classrooms without being able to follow the curriculum. This leads to failing performance and declining confidence, which only reinforces the effects of existing discrimination. China calls its scheme for students in the mainstream education system “study along with the class”; because of the obstacles such children face, it has come to be jokingly referred to as “sit along with the class” or “muddle along with the class.” A large percentage of students with disabilities eventually drop out of school or move to special education schools. Once in the special education system, there is little hope of their being able to cross back to the mainstream school system. Families with children with disabilities should have a choice in selecting the most appropriate educational settings for their children, but currently do not have a meaningful choice.
In China, special education schools have fulfilled an important function in providing access to education for children with disabilities, and they are generally well-resourced with both teachers and equipment. However, special education schools separate children with disabilities from those without, which in many cases is not what the children or their parents want. Special education schools are fewer in number and typically farther away than mainstream schools and parents often know little about them, deterring parents from sending their children to them. And they often require the removal of children from their families and communities and placement in a residential institution from a young age. Moreover, many students with severe disabilities are excluded even from special education schools.
Children with disabilities rarely stay in school beyond junior middle school, and for those who aspire to do so, choices are limited. The Chinese government maintains a system of physical examinations for secondary school students who wish to enter mainstream institutions of higher education. During this process, people with disabilities are required to declare their disabilities, and the results of the medical exams are sent directly to the universities. The government also has guidelines advising higher education institutions to bar or restrict access to students with what they refer to as certain physical and mental “defects.” In addition, students who are blind have very limited access to mainstream universities, as the government fails to readily provide Braille or electronic versions of the gaokao, the university entrance exam.
While there are vocational schools for people with disabilities as well as higher education institutions in the special education system, they tend to focus on training for skills and professions that are traditionally reserved for people with disabilities. For example, the blind are trained in massage therapy and the hearing impaired are trained in visual arts. Students with disabilities who aspire to other professions face daunting challenges. This includes the education profession itself: bureaus of education typically prohibit the hiring of teachers with certain disabilities.
Parents play a pivotal role in determining whether a child with disabilities is brought to school and whether the child can overcome the barriers in the system. However, many parents interviewed by Human Rights Watch lacked essential information about their children’s educational rights and options. While almost all of the children we interviewed had disability cards issued by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), a quasi-governmental disability body, the CDPF has not effectively reached out to parents about their children’s education, let alone helped them identify and remove barriers in mainstream schools. The CDPF and the Ministry of Education, which oversees education, also fail to proactively address discrimination and ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided in mainstream schools.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Chinese government to make an explicit commitment towards a truly inclusive education system by revising existing laws and regulations and by drawing up a clear strategic plan towards such a goal. The government should formulate a policy of reasonable accommodation consistent with international law, set up a mechanism to monitor and provide effective redress in cases of discrimination, and develop outreach programs to support parents so that they are informed of their children’s rights and education options. Failure to ensure access to inclusive and quality education is not only a violation of human rights, but also increases burden on families and incurs economic, social, and welfare costs.
More specifically, the Chinese government should:
- Revise the Regulations on the Education of People with Disabilities to bring them in line with the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Specifically, the new regulations should state clearly that the Chinese government’s overarching goal in the education of people with disabilities is full inclusion at all levels of education and set forth specific actions authorities should take to ensure reasonable accommodation of students with disabilities in mainstream schools.
- Develop a time-bound, strategic plan to move towards an inclusive education system that delivers quality education, with specific indicators to measure access to education for children with disabilities.
- Immediately repeal the Guidelines for the Physical Examination of Students in Recruitment for Ordinary Higher Level Educational Institutions because they allow disability-based discrimination in higher education.
- Develop guidelines for the effective evaluation of students with disabilities studying in mainstream schools and ensure that their educational progress is reflected in the performance assessment of their teachers and schools.
- Provide financial and other resources, including adequately trained staff, to mainstream schools so that they can ensure the provision of reasonable accommodation to pupils and students with disabilities.
- Establish an independent body made up of independent disability experts and representatives of children with disabilities and their parents to monitor the school system’s compliance with relevant laws and regulations and to receive complaints about discrimination and lack of reasonable accommodation at mainstream schools. The body should be charged with making recommendations for reform.
Detailed recommendations can be found at the end of this report.
This report is based on 62 interviews conducted in 12 provinces in China between December 2012 and May 2013. Forty-seven of those interviews were with children and young people with disabilities or their parents. Of the 47, 38 were under age 18 (“children,” as defined in international law) and 9 were over age 18; 12 were out of school (6 had never been to school while six had dropped out) while 35 were in school (18 in mainstream schools and 17 in special education schools). We interviewed 30 of the 47 in the presence of their parents or grandparents. The rest of our 62 interviews were advocates for people with disabilities, educators, government officials, and academics.
All of the children and young people we interviewed were or should have been in school after the Chinese government’s 2008 ratification of the CRPD.
Human Rights Watch interviewed children and young people with a range of disabilities, including physical, sensory (hearing and visual), speech, intellectual, and mental disabilities. Some of the interviewees had multiple disabilities. Almost all of them had disability cards issued by China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF). These cards, which use the classifications prescribed in Chinese law, identify the holders as having the following disabilities: visual, hearing, speech, physical, intellectual, mental, multiple disabilities, and “other.”  Parents used these categories when describing their children’s disabilities, but some pointed out that the categories were inaccurate or did not capture the full range of their children’s disabilities. Since Human Rights Watch was not in a position to identify the interviewees’ disabilities, we have used the CDPF classifications in this report.
In each interview, Human Rights Watch explained the purpose of the interview, how the interview materials would be used and distributed, and sought the participant’s permission before the discussions started. Interviewees were told that they could terminate the interviews any time they wished, or refuse to answer any questions. All the interviews were conducted in Chinese but some required interpretation from the regional dialect or sign language into Mandarin. Human Rights Watch ensured that when interviewing these children and young people, the way we asked the questions was appropriate for their age and sensitive to their disabilities. No interviewee received financial or other compensation in return for interviewing with us.
We were also careful to protect all interviewees’ identities and have replaced their real names with pseudonyms in the report.
Because the Chinese government does not allow independent nongovernmental organizations to conduct human rights research in China, it was difficult for Human Rights Watch to obtain interviews with people in their official capacity. We were only able to interview a handful of government officials, academics, and educators and administrators in public schools. Despite these restrictions, we believe the findings of this report are nationally representative as our interviewees were drawn from 12 Chinese provinces and our analysis is based on national laws and regulations.
For the report, Human Rights Watch also consulted a number of international disability experts. We also reviewed relevant English- and Chinese-language domestic and international press reports, official documents, UN documents, NGO reports, and academic articles. Our findings are generally consistent with those set forth in these other sources.
Disability in China
According to official Chinese sources, an estimated 83 million people in China — 6.3 percent of the population — have disabilities. This is far below the global disability prevalence rate estimated by the World Bank in 2011, which is 15 percent, and is likely an underestimate. If the World Bank prevalence rate is used, the number is 200 million.
As is often the case in other countries, people with disabilities in China are the country’s “largest minority.” In China, over 40 percent of people with disabilities are illiterate and 15 million live under one dollar a day in the countryside, according to official figures. The largest group is people with physical disabilities, with a population of 25 million, followed by those with hearing, multiple, visual, mental, intellectual, and speech disabilities. There is currently no data on those with autism. The government reports that 75 percent of people with disabilities live in rural areas.
The Chinese government has presented itself as a champion of people with disabilities both domestically and internationally. It passed the LPDP in 1990 and issued administrative regulations including the Regulations on the Education of People with Disabilities (REPD) in 1994; these protect the rights to education, employment, and accessible environments for people with disabilities. Internationally, the Chinese government has supported major events concerning people with disabilities, notably including the first international NGO summit on disability held in Beijing in 2000.
In 1988 the Chinese government established the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) under the leadership of Deng Pufang, who has paraplegia and is the son of the late Deng Xiaoping, China’s political leader in the 1980s. According to its constitution, the CDPF aims to “represent, serve and manage” people with disabilities. Although the government often refers to the CDPF as a nongovernmental organization, it acts under the direct supervision of China’s chief administrative authority, the State Council. It has a nationwide network “reaching every part of China” and 80,000 full-time workers, with its headquarters in Beijing. It is responsible for a wide range of matters relating to people with disabilities including education, employment, rehabilitation, culture, sports, advocacy, publications, and residential care.
The CDPF is mandated to assist the Ministry of Education in “the development and implementation of education programs,” carrying out vocational training, and promoting and researching the use of Braille and sign language.  At the local level, it conducts home visits, provides financial aid to students, subsidizes assistive devices, collects data on people with disabilities, and operates rehabilitation centers for children with disabilities.  Despite its laudable mandate, however, a number of independent Chinese disability activists have accused the CDPF of corruption, misallocation of funds, hindering their work and threatening them, and failing to represent and fight for the rights of people with disabilities. 
In addition to the CDPF, a number of international and domestic organizations provide services to people with disabilities in China, and a handful of them focus on advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. Most prominent among the latter are the Beijing Yirenping Center and the Enable Disability Studies Institute.  The Chinese government tightly controls freedom of association in China and it is difficult for such organizations to legally register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Even if they are allowed to operate, they are closely monitored, sometimes harassed, and at risk of co-optation by the government. 
Education of People with Disabilities in China
There are four levels of education in China: pre-school, primary education (ages 6 to 12), secondary education (ages 13 to 18, which includes junior middle school, senior middle school, and vocational school), and higher education (ages 19 to 23). The Chinese government’s policy is to guarantee nine years of free compulsory education, including six years of primary and three years of secondary education. A child starts primary school when they are six years old, though in some areas children can begin school when they are seven.
The Ministry of Education oversees education at all levels in China from pre-school to universities, as well as vocational training schools and special education schools. It is also responsible for drafting legislation on education, developing curriculum and teaching materials, and training and certifying teachers. The allocation of education funding is uneven in China, particularly at the compulsory education level where local governments are responsible for providing adequate resources. This leads to wide gaps between rural and urban areas and between rich coastal and poor inland regions.
The Chinese government currently operates two main systems of education which people with disabilities may attend: mainstream schools and special education schools. In the special education system, students are divided according to type of disability — there are schools for the blind, for the deaf, and for those with intellectual disabilities; some special education schools can accommodate children with multiple types of disabilities.
Special education schools started in China in the 1950s soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, providing important access to education for people with disabilities when educational opportunities were otherwise very limited. Schemes for the education of students with disabilities in mainstream schools are called “study along with the class” or “learning in regular class” (LRC). According to Ministry of Education statistics, there were 1,767 special education schools enrolling 398,700 children with disabilities in 2011; that same year mainstream schools provided education to another 225,200 children with disabilities (including via special education classes in mainstream schools). There are also some privately run special education schools or “rehabilitation institutions” that provide education to children with disabilities.
As noted above, CDPF statistics show that about 28 percent of children with disabilities in the compulsory education years do not go to school, but this figure is not entirely reliable because official statistics regarding disability and education from different government agencies are conflicting and inconsistent. Considering that nearly all Chinese children in the general population go to school at this stage, a 28 percent non-attendance rate is an astonishing gap. Among those children with disabilities who are out of school, 80 per cent are in rural areas. In its policies and plans for education the Chinese government has outlined various targets to raise the enrollment rate for children with disabilities. The vision is to raise the rate to match that of children without disabilities, and to raise the rate in rural areas to at least 90 percent enrollment by 2015. While official statistics show steady progress in raising the enrollment rate of children with disabilities since 2007, the government is unlikely to meet these targets unless it addresses the problems documented in this report.
The education of people with disabilities has consequences far beyond childhood — it affects employment opportunities, quality of life, and the extent to which people with disabilities will be able to support themselves and lead independent lives.  The failure to include people with disabilities in education and later in employment has important implications not only for these individuals and their immediate families but also the wider society and the economy. According to a 2006 study by the International Labor Organization, China loses as much as US$ 111.7 billion, or about 3 per cent of its GDP, as a result of lost productivity stemming from excluding persons with disabilities from the workforce. 
Chinese Government Obligations
The Chinese government is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the CRPD. The ICESCR and CRC guarantee everyone the right to education by making primary education compulsory and free, secondary education available and accessible, and higher education accessible on the basis of capacity. The ICESCR also obliges governments to ensure that the material conditions of teaching staff will be continuously improved. States are also obliged to take measures to encourage regular attendance by children at schools and the reduction of child drop-out rates. With respect to children, states are required to undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources.
Specifically, children with disabilities should receive and have effective access to education. The CRPD articulates in greater detail the right to education for people with disabilities: they enjoy this right “without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity,” they have a right to “an inclusive education system at all levels,” and they have a right to learn skills so that they can participate within their community fully and equally.
China’s Compulsory Education Law (CEL) stipulates that “all children” who have reached the age of six must go to school. The LPDP explicitly guarantees the right to education for people with disabilities. The LPDP stipulates that the government’s priorities are to ensure that students with disabilities have access to compulsory education and to develop vocational training, noting that “efforts shall be made” to implement education at pre-school as well as higher education levels. The Regulations on the Education of Persons with Disabilities (REPD) spell out in greater detail how the education of people with disabilities is to be provided at all levels as well as how teachers of people with disabilities are to be certified, trained, and remunerated. In addition to these laws and regulations, the Ministry of Education also issues rules and normative documents on the education of people with disabilities. Finally, the State Council has issued long-term plans that give broad outlines of the education of people with disabilities from pre-school to vocational training and higher education levels and makes commitments to teacher training and subsidizing students with disabilities.
Non-discrimination and Equal Access
International law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, which is defined under the CRPD as any “distinction, exclusion or restriction…which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In terms of education, the CRPD requires that “people with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability.” This obligation of non-discrimination applies both to public as well as private actors, and at all levels of education, including higher education and vocational training.
The Chinese Constitution proclaims that all Chinese citizens are “equal before the law.” The LPDP also prohibits “discrimination on the basis of disability.” These are statements of principle, however, and neither the Constitution nor the LPDP define discrimination, outline consequences for discrimination, or provide guidance on how to prove discrimination in court.
The proposed amendments to the REPD, released by the Ministry of Education in February 2013 for public comment, offer a small improvement in article 48, which spells out a number of consequences for discrimination, including “sanctions” by educational authorities and “apologies and compensation” to the offended party. Such consequences apply only in cases of “obvious discrimination,” but there is no definition of discrimination or details about the kind of discrimination that should be considered “obvious” in the proposed amendments.
The CRPD requires states to make education inclusive at all levels. The CRC also stipulates that education of people with disabilities should be conducive to the child’s social inclusion. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, a body of independent experts that monitors treaty implementation and issues general recommendations, has stated that “legislation which compulsorily segregates disabled children in segregated institutions for care, treatment or education” is incompatible with the treaty.
In an inclusive education system, all students learn in the same schools in their communities regardless of whether they are “disabled and non-disabled, girls and boys, children from majority and minority ethnic groups, refugees, children with health problems, working children, etc.”  It requires that the system make modifications to the content and methods of education and provide support to meet the diverse needs of all learners.  Inclusive education therefore is not only relevant for the education of students with disabilities, but should benefit all children and be “central to the achievement of high-quality education for all learners and the development of more inclusive societies.”  Studies have shown that students with disabilities achieve better academic results in an inclusive environment when given adequate support than they do in special education settings. 
Inclusive education should be distinguished from two other approaches to educating people with disabilities. One is segregation, where children with disabilities are placed in educational institutions that are separate from the mainstream education system. Another is integration, where children are placed in mainstream schools as long as they can fit in these schools and meet their demands. Unlike inclusive education, integration tends to regard the disabled child rather than the school as the one who needs to change. Inclusion focuses on identifying and removing the barriers to learning and changing practices in schools to accommodate the diverse learning needs of individual students. In China, there is often confusion over the concepts of “integration” (ronghe) and “inclusion” (quanna) by academics and policy makers and the two terms are often used interchangeably.
The affirmation of the right to inclusive education is part of an international shift from a “medical model” of viewing disability to a “social model.” A couple of decades ago, disability was considered a defect that needed to be fixed. Disability today is viewed as an interaction between individuals and their environment, and the emphasis is on identifying and removing discriminatory attitudes and barriers in the environment.
While the CRPD advocates “the goal of full inclusion,” it also states that the primary consideration should be the “best interests of the child.”  In some circumstances, such as when an inclusive education system is not yet functional or necessary accommodations cannot be reasonably provided, it may be more effective for the child to be educated in special education settings for part or all of the time. The CRPD emphasizes the voice and choice of children with disabilities.  It is important that the government make efforts to ensure mainstream education is inclusive and accessible for children with disabilities, and make special education available so that children with disabilities have meaningful choices.
As mentioned above, the Chinese government is currently operating two main parallel systems of education for people with disabilities: special education and mainstream schools. The two streams exist in parallel and rarely interact. For example, the training of teachers in these two systems is separate: teachers are either trained for the special education system or for the mainstream system. The goals for the two education systems are different — while the mainstream system aims to propel students through the educational ladder and into universities, with a strong focus on succeeding in national academic exams, the special education system mostly focuses on getting students through compulsory education and providing vocational training.
Although the two systems do overlap in some areas, the facts remain that they are separate and parallel and that there are systematic barriers preventing students with disabilities from entering and staying in the mainstream system. Children with disabilities are entitled to attend mainstream schools only if they are “able to adapt themselves to study in ordinary classes” and can “study along with the class.” This is in essence a form of integrated education — it is the students with disabilities who have to adapt to the education system, not the reverse.
In its review of the Chinese government’s compliance with the CRPD in September 2012, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities expressed concern about the “high number of special schools and the State party’s policy of actively developing these schools” and recommended that the government “reallocate[s] resources from the special education system to promote … inclusive education in mainstream schools.” So far, the Chinese government has not taken concrete steps to meet this recommendation. The government’s 10-year education plan, issued in July 2010, includes specific targets and clear timelines for building more special education institutions but no comparable targets and timelines for the education of students with disabilities in mainstream schools. And while funding for special education schools has nearly quadrupled in the past decade, funding dedicated to mainstream schools specifically for the education of students with disabilities has seen little growth; most local governments have not dedicated funding to help mainstream schools implement “learning in regular class” (LRC) schemes.
The government’s proposed amendments to the REPD continue to call for the building of new special education schools, including segregated institutions of higher education.  Under the amendments, a new panel of experts will be established to place people with disabilities in either segregated schools or mainstream schools “according to the types of disabilities and their learning abilities”  and their “ability to receive an ordinary education.”  In other words, the proposed mechanism continues to segregate a category of persons with disabilities from the mainstream school system, and this decision is made by a group of experts without any participation by families with children with disabilities in the process.
To realize the right to inclusive education, the CRPD requires states to ensure “reasonable accommodation.” As defined by the CRPD, reasonable accommodation means “necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden…to ensure to people with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In education, it more specifically means steps that “allow students to get an equal education by limiting as much as possible the effects of their disabilities on their performance,” with the caveat that the steps not impose “significant difficulty or expense” on the government. State parties also have an obligation to ensure that the education of people with disabilities, especially those who are deaf and blind, is provided “in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication for the individual.” The CRPD also requires that state parties promote the availability and use of assistive devices.”
Examples of reasonable accommodation include holding classes on the ground floor; providing note-takers; allowing for additional time for note-taking or during exams; priority seating for students to minimize distractions and enable them to see and hear the teachers; providing assistive devices such as magnifying equipment or tape recorders; providing sign-language instructors; reading aloud written materials for students with visual impairments; and structural modifications to schools, such as ramps.
An important part of ensuring reasonable accommodation is training teachers, school administrators, and education officials in methods to support persons with disabilities. According to the CRPD, such training should include “disability awareness and the use of appropriate augmentative and alternative modes, means and formats of communication, educational techniques and materials to support persons with disabilities.” It is crucial that teachers are given adequate support so that they can provide accommodations to students with disabilities.
Relevant Chinese regulations stipulate the establishment of “resource rooms” within mainstream schools and “resource centers” in a given area to provide guidance, equipment, and support to facilitate education for children with disabilities in the mainstream education system. They also stipulate that teacher training institutions include classes on special education and that educational authorities include training in special education at all levels of teachers’ training programs.
While the provision for resource rooms and resource centers is certainly a step in the right direction, any positive effect they might have is hampered by the fact that Chinese laws and regulations do not clearly require that schools provide students with disabilities “reasonable accommodation” as defined in international law. The closest equivalent is in the LPDP requirement that the government provide “special assistance” to people with disabilities so as to “alleviate or eliminate the impact of their disabilities and external barriers and ensuring the realization of their rights.” However, the choice of the phrase “special assistance” suggests that such assistance is out of the ordinary rather than a necessity and a right.
Similarly, the REPD states that mainstream schools should provide “help to [meet] special learning and rehabilitation needs”; and the Education Law and the CEL stipulate that schools should provide “assistance” and “convenience” — the vagueness of the terms again raises questions about whether the accommodations are rights to which students are entitled or favors bestowed by the schools. Another set of government regulations, Regulations on Construction of a Barrier-free Environment, was enacted to “ensure equal participation of persons with disabilities and other members of the community in social life,” but the regulations only refer to general accessibility measures. The proposed amendments to the REPD mention “reasonable accommodations” twice, but provide no definition of the term or examples of the kind of support schools are obligated to provide to students with disabilities. None of the laws, regulations, or the proposed REPD amendments outline any consequences if the government or the schools do not offer such support. They also do not recognize denial of reasonable accommodation as a form of discrimination, as required under the CRPD.
More problematically, the limited “assistance” and “help” that schools must provide is conditioned on whether children are “able to adapt themselves to study in ordinary classes,” as stipulated in the CEL and the REPD. On the one hand, schools are supposed to provide assistance and flexibility to students with disabilities; on the other, students are supposed to show themselves able to adapt to study in mainstream classes. In practice, the burden of proof is on the students themselves — during enrollment, throughout the academic year, and as they advance in school — to show that they can adapt to existing school requirements.
Discrimination and Exclusion from Mainstream Schools
Although the Chinese government is obligated by international law to ensure that all children have access to the general education system regardless of disabilities, families told Human Rights Watch that children and young people with disabilities are denied admission by mainstream schools in their areas, pressured to leave the schools, or effectively expelled because of their disabilities. They also reported that schools do not provide reasonable accommodation. Teachers are not given the necessary support or training to work effectively with students with disabilities; classrooms are physically inaccessible and lack appropriate materials; and student evaluation methods lack flexibility.
Some children and young people with disabilities do overcome all these barriers to education. Parents play a crucial role in this process, but generally lack awareness of their children’s educational rights and options. Many parents told Human Rights Watch, for example, that they were unaware of the concept of “reasonable accommodations” or that the government and schools are legally required to take measures that allow children with disabilities to study at mainstream schools. Instead, as noted above, several told us that it is their children who are “defective” and need to adapt to the classrooms. A few parents with financial means told Human Rights Watch that they quit their jobs to accompany their children in school, moved to a different neighborhood with more accepting schools, or started new private schools for their children and others whom mainstream schools would not accept — just to improve the odds of their children getting the education guaranteed to them by law.
Most children whose parents are unable or unwilling to provide support are denied the opportunity to be educated altogether. Among the 47 families interviewed by Human Rights Watch, six children and young people with disabilities never attended school and six dropped out from mainstream schools along the way. Most of those who do not attend schools live in rural areas.
Bars to Admission
Nine of the 36 families we interviewed who had tried to enroll their child in mainstream schools were denied admission by one or more schools. One mother, Zhao Yibin, told Human Rights Watch that after kindergarten no mainstream primary school would take her son, who has albinism and limited vision:
We went to many schools, it was so hard. Nobody would take him. We felt terrible as parents…. At the time, the class teacher agreed to take us, but the one in charge of student discipline wouldn’t. I think he was afraid of the responsibilities.
The mother of Chen Yufei said the mainstream school in her village refused to enroll her nine-year-old boy because of his disabilities.
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. Other children in the village who are at a worse [academic] level are all enrolled.
In explaining their reasons for not enrolling children with disabilities, schools cite a lack of resources to care for them and fear of taking on extra tasks and responsibilities, or simply say that the children “can’t learn,”  are “different from normal children,”  or “might affect other children.”  Song Jianjun, the mother of a child with autism, told Human Rights Watch:
[The school said] the conditions at the school aren’t adequate, that they do not have enough staff members to take care of these kinds of children, that he can’t control his behavior.... I went to about three schools, every one of them refused to take us, they all said the conditions in the schools don’t meet the standards.
Mother of seven-year-old Chen Yusheng, who has a physical disability, told Human Rights Watch:
The people at the kindergarten didn’t want him, we brought him to the kindergartens in Guangzhou City, they all wouldn’t enroll him, they said they affect the other kids [in the school].
The reluctance of mainstream schools to admit children with disabilities is also related to the highly competitive education system that focuses on test scores. In many parts of China, there is a “key school” system that rewards better-performing mainstream schools with more resources and funding, and children with disabilities are often seen as a burden to these schools. A staff member at China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) told Human Rights Watch:
If you have intellectual disabilities, [mainstream schools] ask you not to study here…. The schools want their ranking and are afraid that intellectually disabled students would encumber them so they often find opportunities to demand that these kids to go to special education schools. 
Some mainstream schools require that parents to take care of their children at school as a pre-condition of admitting the children. A disability rights activist told us she met a couple of students who have severe mobility disabilities and were initially refused admission, but the parents pleaded to the school. According to her:
[T]he school said that unless a parent accompanied the child, [they could not enroll the child] because the teacher has to prepare for class. The teacher cannot accompany the child to the bathroom, or do much else … so the parents agreed and let the grandmother accompany the child, taking him to drink water and to the bathroom. If you can do this much, then the schools may take you.
A few parents told Human Rights Watch that before children with disabilities are admitted, they have to sign agreements with the school releasing the school of responsibility should their children fall ill or be hurt.
We have an agreement with the teacher, which we sign every year because our child is different from normal children. [We have to promise that] if the child’s sick and so on, it has nothing to do with the school. It’s a liability waiver.
In two out of the nine cases we investigated in which children were denied enrollment in mainstream schools, the children are currently out of school. One is Yu Yuechun, a 13-year-old with an intellectual disability, whose grandmother told Human Rights Watch that schools would not enroll him because “he can’t learn.” Prior to that, he was expelled from school after half a year.
When he was seven he went to primary school for half a year, but after he had fights with the other children, the school wouldn’t let him continue. Then we went looking for other schools, but they said he can’t learn and wouldn’t take him.
Pressures to Leave and Dismissals
The struggle to enroll children with disabilities in mainstream schools does not end when the child begins to attend classes. Several parents told Human Rights Watch that school administrators or teachers pressured them to remove their children from school. A parent-advocate who runs a rehabilitation center for autistic children and is the mother of an autistic boy told Human Rights Watch that many parents who come to her center have had bad experiences at mainstream schools:
[A]t most you can stay there for one or two years before you are very tactfully asked to leave. In my experience, it is difficult to find a school and get admitted, but if you belong to the school district then they can’t refuse [to enroll] you…. They admit your child but find opportunities to tell you that they want you to transfer your child to another school.
Although Zheng’s son has managed to stay in the mainstream school, the teacher keeps suggesting that he “take a leave of absence” from school. In another case, the mother of Wang Le, a child with a severe hearing impairment, told Human Rights Watch that after studying in a mainstream school for half a year, the school tried to get her to transfer him to a special education school:
[A]fter the teacher learned more about him, the teacher told us once: “Mother of Wang Le, why don’t you find another school? He is very smart, but he can’t hear anything. I’m afraid his talents would be wasted.” That’s what the teacher said, it was put very nicely, but … where else could he go? 
Li Shengrong, a 15-year-old girl with an intellectual disability, told Human Rights Watch that her school complained about her ability to learn and expelled her after alleging that she cheated on an exam. A number of children with intellectual disabilities reported to Human Rights Watch that schools used similar excuses regarding behavioral problems when expelling them or asking them to leave:
There was a school near us but they dismissed me…. Because I didn’t learn well…. I didn’t know what to write during exams. I was really bored so I looked at other [students]. The teacher saw me and told me to leave…. But I didn’t look at others’ [papers].
These students also told Human Rights Watch that they were dismissed from mainstream schools after they were neglected and bullied by teachers and fellow students. In the words of 16-year-old Chen Ping, who now studies in a private special education school for children with intellectual disabilities:
A math teacher gave me a scolding [after] he gave me zeros for every exam, and then he said some very nasty things. I couldn’t stand it … and when he told me to go home, I went home…. The principal told me himself that because my math is no good, I should contact this [special education] school.
Lack of Reasonable Accommodation
You’ve brought him to a normal environment, thus it is he who must adapt.
—The mother of Zheng Jun, a boy with autism, recalling the words of his teacher at a mainstream school, January 2013.
Human Rights Watch research found that little to no accommodation is provided in mainstream schools for students with disabilities at all stages of education. Students with severe mobility impairments said they need to go up and down the stairs to get to their classrooms or use the bathrooms. Those with hearing impairments said they have no written notes provided and there is no sign language instruction available; mainstream schools described to Human Rights Watch do not readily provide visual aids, Braille, electronic materials, or enlarged texts for students with visual impairments. Children with intellectual disabilities are expected to sit through the entire curriculum together with the rest of the class with little modification to the curriculum or teaching methods to meet their learning abilities and needs. None of the schools at which the interviewees study have resource rooms.
Our interviewees also described a lack of flexibility in the evaluation of student performance in the mainstream system, noting that schools fail to modify tests or exams to accommodate students with disabilities. In higher education, blind students are effectively barred from mainstream education because Braille or electronic exam papers are generally unavailable during gaokao, while deaf students are severely disadvantaged as listening exams are a requirement for a national standardized English test required for university graduation.
Students with disabilities and their parents told Human Rights Watch that few teachers take the initiative to provide them with reasonable accommodation and, in some cases, teachers neglected or even humiliated them. While a few said that their teachers have better teaching styles or provide them with better support, such efforts are inconsistent. Lack of support and training to teachers and school administrators, lack of funding to schools for inclusive education, and the fact that evaluation of educators rarely takes into account the performance of students with disabilities all contribute to schools’ failures to ensure reasonable accommodation.
The Role of Teachers
One important way of providing reasonable accommodation is to modify teaching styles and methods. However, most parents and students with disabilities interviewed responded negatively when asked whether teachers adjusted their teaching methods to meet their needs:
Some individual teachers would take the initiative to ask me if I understood, and that I could ask them anytime if I don’t … but that’s very rare. In three years at university, I have experienced [such initiative from teachers only] five times. We have no examples [of accommodation]. The teachers treated me the same as other students.
Students with intellectual disabilities are expected to sit through the entire curriculum together with the rest of the class — as one parent puts it, “even when they can’t understand.” Worse still, a number of students with intellectual disabilities or autism and their parents reported to Human Rights Watch that teachers intentionally ignored them due to their poor academic performance. Mother of Chen Xiaoling, who has intellectual and visual impairments, said Chen was placed in the back of the class.
The teacher didn’t pay any attention to her, she didn’t get any exams or homework, she just sat at school. The teacher didn’t care which parts she didn’t understand…. Her eyesight is very bad…. She certainly couldn’t see anything. She was moved to the back of the class because she couldn’t follow the class.
Similarly, the mother of Zheng Yu, who has an intellectual disability, told Human Rights Watch:
I bring the child to school and the teacher would let him in, but if he leaves [during school], the teacher doesn’t stop him…. It’s like this every day. The school hasn’t given him textbooks but we bought him some notebooks so he could draw.
A few interviewees reported being given some accommodations in mainstream schools, but the efforts are inconsistent and sporadic at best, dependent on the attitudes of individual teachers and schools.  Some teachers have teaching styles that make it easier for students with disabilities to follow. Sixteen-year-old Liu Yiyuan said some of her teachers wrote down notes on the blackboard and spoke slowly; others did not write anything down and she “couldn’t keep up.”  None of her teachers provided written notes and they walked around the classroom while teaching, sometimes standing at the back of the class.
The accommodations also tend to be less available in higher grades, as teachers face greater time pressure to prepare students for gaokao. The mother of a 15-year old girl with a hearing impairment explained:
[My daughter] mainly reads lips, but now in universities and high schools the teachers speak very quickly, and they can’t [always] talk facing you. In the past, her teachers were all very good, she was very lucky. 
Whether or not a child is provided with accommodations in schools depends on the attitudes of teachers and school administrators. In the words of Zheng Jun’s mother, it depends on “your luck if you meet a teacher or a principal who is relatively better.” A scholar focusing on inclusive education told Human Rights Watch that much of the variation in teacher attitudes can be attributed to government failure to institutionalize the guarantee of “reasonable accommodation”:
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.
Parents, students, teachers, and principals told Human Rights Watch that the main reasons for failure to provide reasonable accommodation are inadequate support to teachers and large class sizes. With 30 to 60 students in a mainstream school classroom and no support staff to care for children with disabilities, teachers have little time to devote to individual students, much less to make adjustments to teaching styles, teaching materials, or evaluation mechanisms for the one or two students with disabilities in the class. 
Liang Sisi, mother of a child with cerebral palsy, told Human Rights Watch that “with so many children in the class, the teachers is too busy” to care for her daughter. She added that the school principal was reluctant to enroll her child because the school had no extra hands to provide care for these students, and the responsibilities land on the teachers. She explained:
The principal told me that there was a parent who brought his child to school, but did not provide any care. So the teacher had to carry the child on her back everywhere, and the teacher didn’t like it. So the principal said to me, “If we put your child in a class, I still have to obtain the consent of the teacher. If the teacher isn’t willing to accept your child then I can’t do anything for you.”
Such lack of support can also lead teachers to become frustrated with students with disabilities, according to two educators in mainstream schools who spoke with Human Rights Watch. One teacher told us that her student, a 6-year-old boy who has intellectual and mental disabilities, keeps hitting other students and doesn’t respond when she calls him, “as if he has no ears.” The child’s academic performance “is just bad.” The mother of Wang Le, a boy who has a severe hearing impairment, said his teacher would
point a loudspeaker right at him but he still could not understand what the teacher said even though he wears a hearing aid. Sometimes the teacher gets so mad.
Because of the lack of government or school support for educators, as one parent put it, “it is the parent who provides the support.” The same parent noted that when “the teachers are good, then they help you or ask the other students to help you, but most of the time, the burden falls on the parents.” In some cases, schools make the parents agree to provide support as a condition for enrollment, or the parents take the initiative to offer such support in a bid to get their children enrolled.
In China, the performance of many schools and teachers is evaluated on the basis of the average grades of students. Some schools treat students with disabilities as “audit students” or otherwise exclude their grades from the class average in order to ensure that children with disabilities do not lower the school’s overall score. For example, the mother of Yang Shun, a 12-year-old girl with an intellectual disability, told Human Rights Watch:
[The children with disabilities in this school] are all auditing, their grades are not recorded as part of the school’s overall grades…. They didn’t ask us [for our opinions] about this…. If our children score zeros in tests then it affects the class scores in that year level. Their class teacher is rated, and the substitute teacher as well. Since [children with disabilities] affect their ratings, they definitely wouldn’t [include our children’s scores.]
One family described a school principal’s calculation about whether to admit their daughter, basing his decision on her likely academic ability. The experience of Xu Lele, a 15-year-old girl with hearing and speech disabilities, illustrates this point. Her mother told us:
The principal said, “For people like [your daughter], I suggest she go to the school for the deaf because our school does not have students like her.” I told him that my child would like to study [here] and he said, “She might want to study [here], but the question is whether or not she can.”… Then he talked about making guarantees, that if my child can’t keep up in class, then she can’t take the exams or be enrolled. After she was enrolled she did well, so she has been taking the same tests as other students.
One teacher even told the mother of Zheng Jun, a child with autism, that “regardless of how well or poorly he might be doing, it has no bearing on my performance [evaluation].”  Mrs. Zheng clearly feels that her son is being discriminated against. She explained:
He takes his exams together with others, but since primary two, the teacher hasn’t given him his grades… He minds such things very much. He knows … Sometimes he said he did better than his classmate in the exams, but his classmate got a score and he didn’t.
Because the performance of students with disabilities does not form part of their or the school’s evaluation, teachers and school administrators often are not inclined to exert themselves on behalf of students with disabilities. Education officials acknowledged that there “isn’t any system of assessment for the quality of ‘study along with the class’ schemes.” As one scholar who studies inclusive education puts it:
The child’s performance is not included in the evaluation [of the teacher], so the teacher doesn’t care. He has so many students in his class. He has no energy, nor the willingness to take the initiative to help such kind of children.
Lack of Training and Funding
Teachers and school administrators lack training in inclusive education, while schools lack funding for providing support to the teachers to make accommodations possible. Although the Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities (LPDP) and the Regulations on the Education of Persons with Disabilities (REPD) stipulate that institutions that train mainstream teachers must include courses on teaching students with disabilities, a survey of these institutions show that only 13.9 percent of them do so, and only a minority of those do so regularly. Although on-the-job training is available from bureaus of education, the sessions are short and the number of teachers trained remains low. Most teachers of students with disabilities still have not received such training, and there is no clear timeline to ensure that such standards are met for all mainstream teachers.
The principal of the school attended by Zheng Leyan, a girl with an intellectual disability, told Human Rights Watch that he wished that her class teacher could be trained in special education. According to him, the local bureau of education has never made such arrangements. “I have no idea how they teach [children with disabilities],” he said.
Another principal told us that he has “never heard of” training available for teachers in mainstream schools designed for teaching children with disabilities, even though he has been at the school for more than a decade, while training for other basic teaching skills are available “from time to time.”
Mainstream schools often receive little or no funding to provide accommodations for children with disabilities, even though Chinese regulations on disability and education stipulate that funding be allocated by local education bureaus to mainstream schools for that purpose. In a 2006 survey, only 7.7 percent of mainstream schools that enrolled students with disabilities reported that their local bureaus of education had earmarked sufficient funds for these children, while over half of the respondents said there was either no designated funding or that the funding was very little.
Educators interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said that while they have to report to the local bureau of education that they have children with disabilities in the school, they receive no additional funding from the bureau for the children. Rather than being earmarked to ensure reasonable accommodations, available funding is used to waive miscellaneous fees and provide a small cash subsidy to the students with disabilities (the policy of “liangmian yibu” or “two waivers and one subsidy”), or goes to provide a small subsidy for teachers to “motivate” them to better educate students with disabilities in their classrooms.
Lack of Transport to School
A number of parents told Human Rights Watch that they are their children’s sole means of transport. And for children with disabilities affecting their mobility, when parents fall ill, are injured, or otherwise cannot afford to take the time to accompany their children to school, then the children are forced to stay home. Yang Ranran, mother of a boy with a mobility disability as a result of cerebral palsy, told Human Rights Watch of their plight after she broke her leg:
I fell and cut open my leg, so I couldn’t walk. If I didn’t fall then, I could have carried him on my back…. We have no other way [to send him to school]. We don’t own our home and his father has to go to work…. I spoke with the principal and told him that after the new year I’d bring him to school in a cart … but I’m afraid that I might not be able to pull the cart given my poor health.
There is no general transportation scheme to take students with disabilities to mainstream schools. In replies to an information disclosure request filed by a disability activist in February 2013, all six municipal and provincial education bureaus that directly responded to a question regarding provision of transport to students with disabilities denied that lack of transportation was a problem for students with disabilities, saying that students with disabilities either live in residential facilities or near the mainstream schools they attend.  This is very likely untrue for some mobility-impaired students, and for those who live near mainstream schools, a “short” trip to the school can be very long given their impairments. 
As noted above, about 75 percent of people with disabilities in China live in rural areas, and government consolidation of mainstream schools in rural areas is estimated to have closed down half of all rural schools in the past decade. This has meant that mainstream schools are now even further away from some rural students. This places an extra burden on parents because they need to organize transport or rent a room near the schools to accompany their child. Some of these schools provide residential facilities, but there is no support staff to take care of children with disabilities.
A number of parents of children with disabilities told Human Rights Watch that the distance to the nearest mainstream school was one of the main reasons their child was no longer attending school. For example, Chen Xiaoling’s mother told us that Chen dropped out of school when she was 13 because:
The [village] school was closed and consolidated in 2010…. If it was still here then I’d let her continue [in the village school].
Similarly, father of Zheng Leyan, who has an intellectual disability, told Human Rights Watch that Zheng will drop out of school once she finished primary four because he and his wife cannot afford to give up working in the fields to accompany her to school, especially when she “can’t learn.”
No, it’s too far away. The centralized school is about 17-18 kilometers away. It’s not possible, we would have to rent a flat [near the school], how is it possible?
The grandmother of 13-year-old Zhang Xiaoli, who has mobility and intellectual disabilities and dropped out of school after finishing primary school, told Human Rights Watch the following about her granddaughter:
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…. The main reason is still no one to send her to and back from school.
Lack of Accessible Classrooms and Materials
Parents and students we interviewed also said that mainstream schools and local governments fail to ensure that students with disabilities both have easy access to their classrooms and are provided with alternative means of communication and assistive devices.
While students with mild physical disabilities generally have few problems getting around school, those with more severe mobility impairments told Human Rights Watch that getting to school as well as getting around school is difficult. Liang Sisi, mother of a girl with cerebral palsy, told Human Rights Watch that much of her day is spent caring for her daughter at school:
Their school has only one bathroom on the first floor [and her class is on the fourth floor]…. I bring her to school in the morning, and after two classes I go there again to help her to the bathroom, and again in the middle of the afternoon. I go back and forth many times.
Visual aids and large print materials are not readily available for students with visual impairments in mainstream schools. They also typically do not offer Braille and are not equipped with Braille teachers. As a result, most students who are blind or with low vision go to special education schools because they have better facilities than mainstream schools and because mainstream schools are reluctant to accept them.
Braille or electronic exam papers are also not readily available during public university entrance exams including gaokao, which means that blind students are almost entirely excluded from mainstream higher education. In 2012, Wang Qiuyi, a blind student who studied in a special education school, applied for Braille papers for gaokao in Shandong Province but the provincial bureau of education rejected her request. The bureau’s explanation, according to a news report, was as follows:
Even if Wang takes the exams, she would be unable to participate in class like normal students and since ordinary universities cannot provide Braille textbooks, she cannot receive a normal education in ordinary schools.
However, the LPDP stipulates that for “school entrance exams, career qualification exams and placement exams which blind people take part in, Braille or electronic exam papers or assistance from specialized staff shall be available.” The Regulation on the Construction of Barrier-Free Environments also has a similar requirement. In response to an information disclosure request sent to all 31 provinces and municipalities, out of eight bureaus of education which responded directly to the question only the Shanghai bureau said that it had provided Braille exam papers in the past four years.
In another case in 2011, Dong Li’na, a young blind woman, applied to the Beijing Bureau of Education to take qualification exams to become a radio host after she completed a tertiary level self-study course. According to media reports, the bureau struck down her request on grounds that there was “no such precedent” and that “[given her] physical condition [she] should not participate in this professional examination.”  Dong later sought help from an anti-discrimination organization, the Beijing Yirenping Center, which publicized her case widely and filed complaints to the bureau. The bureau then promised to provide an accommodation for Dong, and she took the series of exams starting in January 2012. After this case, the Beijing Bureau of Education promised that such accommodations would be available to all people with visual impairments who take professional tertiary-level qualifications exams in Beijing, and a couple of other blind students have since been provided with electronic exam papers for other subjects in Beijing. 
Parents and young people with disabilities also told us of arbitrary treatment in the distribution of hearing aids. Instead of ensuring that children and young persons with hearing impairments are equipped with these devices to meet their educational needs, interviewees told Human Rights Watch that the provision of these devices is often based on other criteria. A disability rights activist said the hearing equipment is only given to those who are poor and children are not prioritized; a CDPF staff member said that they only distributed the devices if individuals make an application for them; a couple of parents said that they were only available to young children under a certain age limit. The mother of a 16-year-old with hearing impairment who studies in a mainstream school told Human Rights Watch that her child was only able to afford a good pair of hearing aids with the financial assistance of her uncle. The mother said:
The CDPF told us to go [get hearing aids] but … they didn’t give her any [because they said] she was too old and she wouldn’t be able to hear anything even if she’d be given hearing aids.
Information about where and how to obtain these devices is also not readily available to the parents. Two families we spoke with reported that their children had no hearing aids because they did not know how to apply for them. Whether or not a child with a hearing impairment gets a quality assistive device depends on a variety of factors and their own efforts to search for funding. The government’s Regulations on the Education of People with Disabilities (REPD) do not mention the provision of assistive devices for students with disabilities. A current university student who lost her hearing while she was in secondary school told Human Rights Watch that she had to take a part-time job to afford the hearing aid.
It was during my first year in university that I struggled to earn money to buy myself hearing aids that cost several hundred renminbi, and later I met a sign language teacher who lent me money so I bought a couple of better ones. Now I can hear in the classroom, but not clearly.
Lack of Appropriate Student Evaluation Mechanisms
Students with disabilities are entitled, under a reasonable accommodation framework, to have their academic abilities evaluated by methods other than the fixed standards applied to other students in the educational system. A Ministry of Education document entitled “Methods for Managing the ‘Study Along with the Class’ Scheme for Persons with Disabilities (MMSACS)” stipulates that assessment of these students should be “flexible” and available in a variety of forms, as well as that the assessment of these students should be included in the “overall assessment of mainstream students” to “better integrate students with and without disabilities.”
While the policy looks good on paper, some parents told Human Rights Watch that schools failed to provide any modifications to homework, tests, or exams to accommodate their children. One child with cerebral palsy who writes slowly has never been given extra time to write his exams. Another parent said the class teacher denied her request to reduce the volume of the written homework assigned to her child, who has autism and is poor at responding to questions in written format. Yet another interviewee with hearing impairments reported that she has to take English listening exams at schools.
Students with hearing impairments are exempted from the listening portion of gaokao exams but not from the listening exams for the College English Test, which are national exams administered by the Ministry of Education. University students are often required to pass these exams in order to graduate at both bachelor and graduate levels. As interviewee Li Hongdan put it, she could “only guess” the answers to the listening test as she could barely hear anything. Li tried to speak to her teachers about providing accommodations during the internal school assessment, but she was rebuffed.
Some teachers understand, but they are in the minority; but some teachers told me: “I won’t lower the assessment requirements because of your condition. You have to do whatever other students have to do.”
Study or Just “Muddle along with the Class”?
The shortcomings described above fail not only students with disabilities but their parents and teachers as well. Other than those involving mild physical disabilities, in almost all the cases we examined the parents or children said they were failing academically or had already withdrawn from mainstream school. One aim of mainstreaming is to combat stereotypes and prejudices, but placing these children in mainstream schools without ensuring reasonable accommodations undermines this important goal.
While some of our interviewees reported that they were treated well in school, a number said they were treated badly by fellow students. Tong Ying, a 17-year-old girl with physical disabilities, told Human Rights Watch that she prefers special education school.
Here we are all disabled, we are equal. I went to mainstream primary and junior middle school but I didn’t like them. I was beaten by teachers during primary school and bullied by fellow students. Lots of other students looked down on me.
In turn, these barriers lead to declining confidence and a lack of interest in learning among students with disabilities. Some eventually drop out while others transfer to special education schools. Eleven of our interviewees joined special education schools after they were rejected, effectively expelled, or otherwise excluded from the mainstream system. In one interview, Du Ting, a 15-year-old girl with a hearing impairment, left a mainstream school because she was scolded and sworn at by fellow students, who felt “she was lower than other children in the mainstream school.” Chen Xiaoling, who has intellectual and visual impairments, quit school after primary four because she “was afraid that others would laugh at her” due to her poor academic performance. Chen Yangfei left school in 2012 at age 8 because he had “no motivation to learn” as a result of barriers due to hearing and speech impairments.
All of these barriers undermine the intended purpose of inclusive education, which is to “respond to the diversity of needs of all learners,” and to ensure the “full development of human potential and sense of dignity and self-worth.”
Limited Access to Higher Education
Few students with disabilities reach higher education. Those who do tend to be ones who have physical or mild disabilities, and they face additional barriers as a result of government policy.
All students applying to universities must submit the results of a detailed physical examination, along with their academic records, for consideration. These include a record of the student’s self-reported medical history, including the presence of disabilities, along with a doctor’s assessment. The Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, and the CDPF have a set of guidelines advising universities on the type of “physiological defects” and “illnesses” that make a person “unable to take care of themselves or complete their studies,” and these can be grounds for denying them admission to universities in general. Although only “guidelines”, they send a clear signal to universities that they can discriminate in admissions on the basis of students’ physical or mental attributes or disabilities.
Under each disability or illness, the guidelines list fields of study for which applicants may be denied admission based on their disability and fields of study for which they are “advised” not to apply. Many of the qualifications requirements appear irrelevant to the subject, while some others are not essential to success in the subject if the students are given accommodations and support. The official introductory note accompanying the guidelines states that schools cannot deny admission to people with “disabilities of the limbs whose disabilities do not affect one’s learning of the applied profession,” a step which is in the right direction but nonetheless flawed. The clause is limited by its terms to applicants with certain physical disabilities, and it still gives university administrators broad discretion to deny admission whenever they determine that a particular disability might “affect learning.”
Ran Yanshan, who has a visual impairment as a result of albinism, told Human Rights Watch that he was denied admission to study a Bachelor’s degree program in English at Guangxi University, his top choice, after he failed to pass the visual component of the physical examinations.
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. 
The guidelines also put people with disabilities in a difficult position. If they state their conditions fully as required, they risk discrimination by the universities; if they fail to report their disabilities, they risk being subsequently rejected due to dishonesty. In past years, a number of press reports have documented that several students with disabilities were rejected by universities for failure to report their disabilities.
The guidelines also authorize universities to impose more detailed restrictions based on characteristics of applicants as long as they are consistent with the guidelines. For example:
Data available between 2001 and 2007 from the CDPF indicates that, on average, about 8.3 percent of candidates with disabilities were not admitted even though they had obtained the required scores and that, encouragingly, the percentage has gradually declined over the years. This relatively small percentage, however, must factor in how many students with disabilities never reach higher education, as well as the reality that others may be dissuaded from applying to their preferred universities and academic fields by the government guidelines described above.
Certain local bureaus of education as well as universities give advice in the media as well as on their websites that encourages students with disabilities to “choose colleges and professions that fit their physical conditions.” Students with disabilities told Human Rights Watch that they did take such an approach to increase the odds of entering universities. One told us:
Most of my university friends who have hearing impairments and I chose subjects like accounting and fine arts. This is because from the beginning we have avoided field of study that might reject us.
Another university student, Wang Lele, who has a physical disability, told Human Rights Watch that lack of information about the physical examination system and which schools might reject her on the basis of disabilities led her to avoid certain schools and subjects:
I felt very [worried], I had to think, “Can I apply to these schools?” I didn’t know if they would enroll me even if I met the academic requirements. I felt pretty depressed…. When I filled in my university choices, I removed some schools which I thought would not take me. But it wasn’t an informed choice.... There was no one I could consult to find out more about the situation.”
Ran Yanshan also told Human Rights Watch that prior to being denied admission to university on the grounds of his visual disability, he had carefully chosen subjects that do not have a strong visual requirement.
I had a two-pronged strategy: first, I applied to study English because it shouldn’t have too high a requirement on visual abilities…. Second, I indicated in my application that I would be willing to obey their subject arrangement, so if they think I am not suitable to study English, I am willing to be allocated to another subject [by the university].
Discrimination in the Hiring of Teachers
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) requires that the Chinese government “employ teachers, including teachers with disabilities, who are qualified in sign language and/or Braille,” prohibits discrimination in employment, and requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace. While there are teachers with disabilities in the special education system, government policies discriminate against them in the mainstream school system.
The Ministry of Education’s Regulations for Implementation of >Teacher Qualifications,  which went into effect in 2000, gave provincial governments autonomy in setting the criteria for physical checkups to determine eligibility as a teacher, which led to a proliferation of local policies and regulations that discriminate against people with disabilities. A 2011 survey conducted by a disability rights advocate found that government policies on teachers’ qualifications in 20 out of 21 provinces included provisions that discriminate against people with disabilities. For example, physical examination standards for teachers set out by Anhui province list 19 types of disqualifying health conditions, including: “inability to hear within a 2 meter range in both ears,” “corrected vision of less than 5.0 in both eyes,” and “inability to move upper or lower limbs.”An individual with any of these health conditions is not eligible to be a teacher. Shanxi province sets out a similar set of disqualifying criteria, such as “glaucoma, retinaandoptic nerve diseases,color blindness, and color weakness.”
These discriminatory physical examination standards have prevented people with disabilities from entering the teaching profession and receiving equal treatment as teachers, according to media reports. Guo Sheng, who had childhood polio that left him with limited mobility in the lower body, taught as a “temporary” substitute teacher for 20 years, as his height does not meet the requirement of “taller than 1.6 meters” as required for a male teacher.  In Anhui Province, the local board of education rejected an application by Zhu Qihong, a middle school teacher who lost his right arm, to qualify as a high school teacher because he did not meet the physical standards.  Zhu was previously eligible to teach in middle school as he had qualified before amendments were made to the Anhui physical examination standards of teachers in 2004. In Yunnan Province, the local board of education reportedly refused to sign a teaching contract with a college graduate with a teaching degree after they found out that his left forearm was amputated. 
Problems with Special Education Schools
Because the gates for the special education schools are always closed for security reasons, once the children are inside it is very difficult for them to come out.
— Lan Yingying, a scholar who studies China’s special education schools, April 2013.
In general, special education schools in China have trained teachers and appropriate equipment and facilities and are resourced and funded well. Over half of the students we interviewed who studied in this system said they like studying in these schools. Most of the students who transferred to these schools from mainstream schools noted that their new teachers give them better and more individualized support, and they report that they are generally happier and more confident in these schools.
However, there are a number of problems with the special education system. The schools are far away from some of their prospective students. Most are isolated from their immediate communities and do not serve certain disability populations, notably students with autism. The slower pace of progress through the curricula, limited subject choices beyond basic education level, and lower academic standards make it difficult for students to rejoin the mainstream system.
Lack of Access
There are currently 1,767 special education schools in China, which, given the size of the country, means they are still few and far between compared to mainstream schools.  Moreover, special education schools tend to be located in urban or administrative centers, and thus are especially difficult to reach for students who live in rural areas (as noted above, 75 percent of people with disabilities in China live in rural areas).  Even if there are special education schools in a particular area, they may serve a specific disability — such as hearing, visual, or intellectual disability — and children with other disabilities may still need to travel long distances.  Some students have to be removed from their families and communities from a young age to study in these schools, most of which provide residential facilities.
Six out of 17 Human Rights Watch interviewees who study in special education schools live in the schools. Some of these students return home on weekends, while some do so only during longer holidays every several months. Parents told Human Rights Watch that they are deterred from sending their children to these schools as they prefer to have their children living with them:
The schools are too far away. She doesn’t know how to care for herself and someone will have to take care of her. She can’t even carry her own bath water, she’s too young and she can’t take care of herself. The [mainstream] schools here are closer, she’s so little — I can take care of her here [at home].
Attendance at such remote special education schools can impact the psychological health of the children too. Chen Fei, a teacher in a residential special education school, told Human Rights Watch that many children are no longer “used to living at home” with their families and would prefer not to visit home.
We observed that for children under 11 or 12 years old, if they live in schools for a long time then they develop communication and emotional [attachment] problems with their parents…. The main problem is that they lack understanding of life at home and the entire society in general because they have such a narrow and fixed social circle.
Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) obliges states to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy “ full inclusion and participation in the community” and prevent “isolation or segregation from the community.” However, a number of interviewees reported that students at special education schools are discouraged from leaving the gated premises, and the students have little interaction with people and places outside.
All students have to live in the schools and can only go home during the weekends. This is done for safety reasons — because all the students have disabilities … they are afraid of accidents.
The special education system is especially difficult for children — such as those with autism — who do not fit under any of the official disability categories and who thus do not have their own dedicated special education schools. As they are rejected by mainstream schools as well, their only alternative is often expensive privately run special education schools. One parent told Human Rights Watch:
In 2010, the first and only government school for children with intellectual disabilities was established in our city. There were only 200 seats and … they didn’t try [to enroll] kids with autism…. Their enrollment capacity is limited, so this kind of children [with autism] are basically excluded because one cannot control their behavior ... these children cannot even go to publicly run special schools for children with intellectual disabilities.
Lower Academic Standards and Limited Subject Choices
Another problem with special education institutions is that the academic standards lag behind those of mainstream schools, which makes it difficult for students to cross back into the mainstream system. According to an education expert in China:
The higher education system has not opened doors to those from special education schools, and as a result these schools lack a motivating mechanism…. Instead, [students from special education schools] might go to those very simple special education colleges with designated seats for students with disabilities, which have very low enrollment standards.
The Chinese government has provided people with disabilities with opportunities beyond compulsory education, but they are usually restricted to vocational training in special education schools or special education colleges.  The Regulations on the Education of Persons with Disabilities (REPD) states that “priority is given to … vocational education” while “education at or above senior middle school level” is being “gradually developed.” 
The types of skill training available in the special education system are limited, especially for students with visual and hearing impairments, and appear to be based on stereotypical views of disabilities and market availability. For example, massage and music are available for the blind, and visual arts and beauty for those who are deaf or who have hearing impairments. This is inconsistent with article 24 (1) of the CRPD, which obligates states to ensure that education aims to develop to the “fullest potential” of people with disabilities. A 15-year-old boy with a visual impairment who is studying at a special education school told Human Rights Watch:
I have some background in massage, I learnt it from Primary 3 to Secondary 1 … because it was a class arranged by the teachers, you can’t refuse. For deaf kids there is cake decorations or beauty treatment. Because we are blind, there is only one [vocational training option]: massage.
Another recent graduate from a special education technical college told Human Rights Watch that students in his college are also placed in different vocational training classes depending on their disabilities — massage for the blind, fashion design for the hearing impaired, computer studies for those with physical disabilities. He was trained in massage and he works as a masseur, but he doesn’t like it.
I don’t like massage, and I estimate that 80 percent of those who are blind don’t like it either, because it was a forced choice, not a voluntary choice…. I believe lots of people would wish to study in ordinary schools where they can choose more reasonable professions…. [If mainstream] universities are opened up [to us], there will be more opportunities. 
In another example, at Special Education College of Changchun University, one of the 18 mainstream higher education institutions in China that have special education colleges for students with disabilities, only five subjects are available. They are acupuncture and massage, musical performance, painting, art, and design and animation. A major in special education is only available for “able-bodied” students.
Failures of the China Disabled Person’s Federation and the Ministry of Education
Rights? What are these rights?... We don’t know these things, and we don’t dare to raise these demands to the school. I’m happy as long as they let us stay in class, even if there are other issues at school. I don’t dare to raise [rights.]
—Mother of an eight-year-old boy with hearing impairments, Guangdong Province, February 2013.
Parental attitudes and resources play an important role in determining whether children with disabilities can overcome the multiple barriers preventing them from attending school or getting a proper education. In some cases, however, parents and grandparents themselves are the first barrier: they do not think that their children are capable of learning and thus do not bring them to school. To ensure that children with disabilities have access to education, a critical step is to inform parents about their children’s right to education and their educational options.
The parents we spoke with said they had little regular contact with the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) or the Ministry of Education regarding their children’s education, had little awareness of their children’s right to education and to “reasonable accommodation” in mainstream schools, and had little information about the special education schools near them.
Lack of Information and Outreach to Parents
When parents already have little confidence in their children’s ability to learn, barriers in the education system add to the equation, tipping the balance towards not bringing their children to school. The grandmother of 12-year-old Zheng Ding, who has cerebral palsy, told Human Rights Watch that he has no ability to learn because he has no strength in his limbs or torso:
How can he go to school? He can’t sit properly, he can’t even hold a piece of cake steadily! His hands don’t work — how can he go to school? He watches TV every day, so if there is an idiom [on TV that] he doesn’t understand, he asks me.
Zheng lives in a Cantonese-speaking area, but he learned to understand Mandarin from the cartoons he watched. He has no friends and only ventures out when his grandparents have a moment to carry him on their backs for a walk.
Lu Xiaoyan, a 14-year-old who has a physical disability, told Human Rights Watch that she would really like to go to school, but her father said she cannot because “everything is inconvenient” at school, she cannot even “eat a meal on her own,” and that there is no one who can care for her there. Similarly, 13-year-old Zhang Xiaoli wanted to go to secondary school after she finished primary education, but her grandmother has never brought her there because the school is too far away and she cannot arrange the transportation. She worries that the school would not enroll Zhang, and explained that she “cannot learn” anyway.
While in theory two systems of education are available to children with disabilities, parents have little knowledge about special education schools and how their children can get access to them. When asked whether she knows about special education schools, the grandmother of Yu Yuechun, a 13-year-old dismissed from school because of his intellectual disability, told Human Rights Watch:
No, I don’t know that kind of school…. His father is working far away from home and I’m going on 80 years, I’m too old to figure these things out.
Parents of children with disabilities who spoke with Human Rights Watch also have little knowledge about the type of support and modifications that could have helped their children get a quality education in mainstream schools. A number of parents we interviewed said that they did not expect the class to adapt to their children, since it is their children who are the problem, especially because the class size is often big and the teacher is already very busy with the other children. One parent told us:
It is your child who is the problem. He is faulty…. The teacher has to teach 50 normal children so she can’t just teach your one child, he learns whatever he manages to learn.
Because mainstream schools can refuse to enroll children with disabilities or ask them to leave, some parents with disabilities are often grateful that their children can go to school. To them, asking for support for their children would be “a luxury.” One parent explained to Human Rights Watch:
She is enrolled right now and as long as she keeps up with the class then that’s OK. The teacher said that if she can’t keep up, then she would not be counted as enrolled. This teacher has given us preferential treatment.
According to a disability rights activist who frequently visits children with disabilities in rural areas, parents almost never ask for any form of accommodation.
One parent told me that he has been bringing his son to his classroom because of physical barriers at school … but when he is in higher grades, the whole class will move to the third floor. So I said, couldn’t you ask them not to move his class? The parent said “No, they can’t possibly affect everyone just because of him alone.”
Although the CDPF maintains a comprehensive database of children with disabilities who have disability cards and reaches out to some of them regularly by conducting home visits, it fails to consistently help them and their parents identify and surmount barriers to education. Almost all the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch who were out of school have disability cards issued by the CDPF, but only two have regular contact with members of the CDPF. Of the two, only one was contacted about education: after the child, who has hearing and speech impairments, was dismissed from school and no other mainstream schools nearby were willing to take him, the CDPF helped to place him in a special education school. The rest of the interviewees said they had no contact with the CDPF after obtaining disability cards.
Yang Ranran, the mother of a 14-year-old with mobility impairment who is currently out of school due to lack of transport, told Human Rights Watch:
About three years ago … I brought my child back to my hometown to get a disability card…. It took them a year to send the card back … but the CDPF has never given us any subsidies or any other help, we just got an identification card.
The lack of outreach and information is especially problematic in rural areas. Parents often go to work in cities and leave their children in the care of grandparents, who often have little education or few resources to navigate the barriers to education. When asked whether the CDPF has contacted her about Zhang Xiaoli’s education, Zhang’s grandmother told Human Rights Watch:
The CDPF has never contacted me and I have never contacted the CDPF…. I am uneducated and I don’t even know what to ask from them.
A former staff member at an international disability organization that has programs in China said that this lack of information, coupled with “a lack of a proper referral system,” makes it hard for parents of children with disabilities to find out where and how they can get their children educated or get access to services. The grandmother of Zheng Ding, who has cerebral palsy, told us:
No, nobody has ever asked us about [his education] … the CDPF has never visited us. It was only through someone in the village that I heard about a rehabilitation center [run by the CDPF] in the county town.
Failure to Fight Discrimination and Ensure Reasonable Accommodation
When confronted with discrimination, students with disabilities and their parents sometimes seek help from the CDPF. The CDPF plays the role of the broker between parents and schools to find solutions. CDPF official Zheng Wei told Human Rights Watch that he had handled three cases of denied admissions — and he got the children enrolled in schools of their choice after first talking to the schools and then to the local bureau of education to put pressure on the schools.
However, a number of parents complained to Human Rights Watch about CDPF interventions. The mother of Chen Yufei, a boy with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and intellectual disability, explained that the CDPF failed to act after she told them about her boy being rejected by mainstream schools:
When he applied for the subsistence allowance, the CDPF sent someone to ask about his situation. I told him all about [being denied admission to school] but nothing happened…. Only the application for the subsistence allowance went through and we get a bit of money every month, but it was otherwise useless. They’d come to send their regards during the new year, send us a barrel of cooking oil, that’s about it.
Song Jianjun, the mother of an autistic son, told us that the CDPF and the local bureau of education avoided addressing her son’s situation. Her son was denied enrollment by the local mainstream school and the closest special education school only admits children with visual, hearing, and intellectual disabilities, leaving him effectively without education. She said:
We have a parents’ organization and we petitioned [the government] several times. We went to the Bureau of Civil Affairs, to the CDPF, to every one of them. But their response was, basically, to kick us around like balls. They said, for matters concerning special education, you should talk to the Bureau of Education; but the Bureau of Education said [these children] are disabled, so those should be matters for the CDPF. And then another one says there is no national policy on this issue, what could we do about it?
A CDPF official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Human Rights Watch that the quasi-governmental organization’s intervention is often not to ensure reasonable accommodation, but to take the path of least resistance. This often results in placing the children in special education schools.
In practice we treat people with disabilities differently…. When [mainstream] schools refuse to accept children with disabilities, they send them to the 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! Nine years of compulsory education — [the CDPF] should help people with disabilities to defend their rights! They should have resolutely prohibited [mainstream] schools from denying them admission! But the CDPF is doing the opposite.
Theoretically, those facing discrimination could take legal action against the schools or the government. But as one parent explained, she “…doesn’t understand such things.”
The Ministry of Education has also contributed to the problem by failing to take action in cases of discrimination. In response to an information disclosure request sent to all 31 provincial and municipal bureaus of education by a disability activist in 2013, only five bureaus directly answered a question about denying admission to children with disabilities. Those five — which included the bureau for Gansu Province — wrote that they had never taken any action against schools for denying admission because they had “never found” any such incidents or “never received any such complaints,”a claim that seems implausible on its face. Indeed, one of the cases we investigated for this report involved discriminatory denial of admission to a disabled child by a school in Gansu Province.
Human Rights Watch was able to find and interview only one person with a disability who had taken legal action against discrimination. Zheng Shaoliang told Human Rights Watch that he tried to sue a university after it rejected his application but accepted those of other applicants with lower scores, which he believed to be the result of discrimination based on his physical disability. But the courts would not register the case. In his own words:
[The court] said the school has autonomy over enrollment, so this does not belong to the remit of administrative lawsuits, also because the school is not an administrative department. I said it is a civil case, and [the court administrator] said it isn’t. I asked him “What kind of a case is this then?” He said “Not everything can be resolved through lawsuits.”… I see what is written in the law, but it has lots of flexibility, so what can I do? Anyway, I tried petitioning the provincial governments and other courts, but none of them would take the case.
Zheng said the CDPF offered to help by hiring him a lawyer, but later withdrew its support because the lawyer said it was unlikely for him to win because the CDPF did not wish to confront a government department higher up in the hierarchy:
The CDPF, I tell you, it does not dare to confront those higher up, they are willing only to send messages down [the hierarchy]. I spoke with them many times. I also arranged for a group of journalists to interview the provincial CDPF, but the CDPF told them they could do nothing…. The CDPF has very limited ability; there is no use asking them for help.
Lack of Awareness of Disability Rights
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) requires that governments adopt “immediate, effective and appropriate measures” to raise awareness in society about people with disabilities, combat stereotypes about them, promote respect for their abilities and contributions, and, importantly, encourage society to view people with disabilities as “independent and autonomous rights holders” with dignity equal to other human beings rather than as objects of pity and charity.
Despite its ratification of the CRPD, the Chinese government continues to use pejorative terms to refer to people with disabilities. The term for people with disabilities, canjiren, which is used in official documents including the official translation of the CRPD and is prevalent among Chinese people, literally means “impaired and sick people.” In its review of China, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities noted “the prevalence of the medical model,” rather than the social model, in the government’s definition of disability, official discourse, and official awareness-raising campaigns.
The Committee also pointed out that the government tended to “depict people with disabilities as helpless and dependent human beings segregated from the rest of society.” In awareness-raising events and disability-related meetings, the government has stressed the importance of caring for people with disabilities in communities. While it is commendable for the government to encourage students to love and to care for fellow students with disabilities, that alone does not fulfill the government’s legal obligations under the CRPD. Li Hongdan, a 22-year-old university student with a hearing impairment, described a “help the disabled” event jointly organized by the school and the CDPF:
The official volunteers at the school…have regular activities to ‘help the disabled,’ which is to gather our friends with disabilities and go for a walk at the park. And then these students would push the wheelchairs enthusiastically for photo-ops. I’m particularly disgusted about this…. Every time it’s the same people with disabilities while there is no help where the real needs are.
The government also fails to engage in robust public education efforts to inform parents and people with disabilities about their educational rights. The Committee specifically asked the government to “inform all people with disabilities, especially those living in rural areas, of their rights, specifically the right to … attend schools.” Although a number of provincial and municipal bureaus of education have said they provided “some” funding for events to publicize the right to education for people with disabilities, it is unclear how much they have done. The CDPF has a “rights defense department” within the organization that aims to “publicize the implementation” of the Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities (LPDP) and other disability-related regulations and to “enhance the rights awareness of people with disabilities,” according to some of its work reports. Yet a CDPF staff member who is also a disability rights activist in his private capacity told Human Rights Watch:
You see the LPDP and the CRPD? They’re just there to gather dust…. The CDPF prints out all these and hands them out randomly, it’s just window-dressing.... The CDPF isn’t like us — when we hand them out, we talk to people about it, just as I explained this and that paragraph to you.
Most parents of children with disabilities drew a blank when asked about the educational rights of their children. As one parent put it:
Rights? What are these rights?... We don’t know these things, and we don’t dare to raise these demands to the school. I’m happy as long as they let us stay in class, even if there are other issues at school. I don’t dare to raise [rights].
Positive Examples: Progress toward Inclusive Education Is Possible Even with Limited Resources
Some municipalities and provinces in China, especially in coastal regions, are making efforts toward a more inclusive education system. In Beijing, for example, the municipal government has announced that it will stop building more special education schools and instead will shift resources to integrate students into mainstream schools. It says it will improve the physical accessibility of mainstream schools and hire “rehabilitation teachers” to provide support to students with disabilities. Beijing municipal authorities have also reportedly established “resource centers” to provide support to teachers of students with disabilities in mainstream schools. Beijing and other cities in more developed parts of the country, including Shanghai, Qingdao City in Shandong Province, and Guangzhou City in Guangdong Province, have also established “resource rooms” in mainstream schools. The bureau of education in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has also reportedly equipped all new schools with accessibility features and converted four mainstream schools to improve accessibility in recent years.
Inclusive education does not have to be costly. For example, to improve physical accessibility it might be sufficient to move a classroom to the ground floor with no further building modifications necessary. Even where modifications are necessary to ensure that buildings are physically accessible to people with disabilities, making the necessary adjustments usually costs only 1 percent of the overall building cost.
With some other disabilities, such as hearing impairments or deafness, modifications to teaching technique can make huge differences. In Beijing’s Chaoyang District, the bureau of education reportedly trains teachers to accommodate students with disabilities. Teachers are taught to avoid walking around the classroom while talking, to keep background noise to a minimum in the classroom, to consider the contrast of colors in designing teaching materials and presentations, and to pair students with hearing and visual impairments and those without to provide some assistance in class.
The costs are often higher, of course, for students with more severe and multiple disabilities. Even in these cases, however, simple accommodations can still be helpful in aiding learning. And in these cases, the government can mobilize parents and set up parents’ networks to provide support to the students. But it is essential that parents be given a choice as to whether or not to play a support role and be given resources, training, and support when they choose to do so. While providing accommodations to students who need the most support can be expensive, it is important to keep in mind that developing and maintaining a separate and complex special education school system — as is the case in China — might cost more than accommodating most students with disabilities within an inclusive system.
Some provincial government authorities have shown an interest in improving access to mainstream schools and a willingness to test out inclusive education approaches. Hopefully, through these initiatives the national Ministry of Education and its provincial and local offices will recognize that inclusive education can be achieved and reasonable accommodation can be provided, make commitments to replicating successful projects nationally, and develop a national strategy on inclusive education.
It is critical for the Chinese government to immediately review and revise its laws and regulations to provide clear legal definitions of non-discrimination and reasonable accommodation, consequences for non-compliance, and an effective redress mechanism to deal with potential grievances. The government should also affirm its commitment to inclusive education and formulate a concrete plan to ensure that teachers and school administrators are provided with adequate funding, training, and an evaluation mechanism that motivates and supports teachers to carry out inclusive education. Central to this plan are parents and children and young people with disabilities — the government should ensure that they are informed about children’s educational rights and options and empower them to get involved in the formulation and implementation of the plan at all levels of education. Only then will education of students with disabilities be more than just “muddling along with the class” and genuine inclusive education become a reality.
To the National People’s Congress
- Revise the Regulations on the Education of
People with Disabilities (REPD) to bring them in line with the Convention on
the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD). Specifically, the new
- State clearly that the Chinese government’s overarching goal in the education of people with disabilities is full inclusion at all levels of education and define “inclusive education” in accordance with article 24 of the CRPD.
- Define “reasonable accommodation” in the amended regulations in accordance with article 2 of the CRPD, and stipulate that the Ministry of Education and its local offices are responsible for ensuring that schools and examination boards provide people with disabilities with reasonable accommodation within the general education system, including the use and teaching of Braille and sign language.
- Remove the phrase “able to adapt themselves to study in ordinary classes” from the REPD because it allows mainstream schools to discriminate against potential students on the basis of physical or mental characteristics or abilities; remove the phrase and any comparable discrimination-enabling language from all other education laws and regulations.
- State explicitly that mainstream schools which refuse to admit students or effectively expel them on the basis of disabilities are subject to sanction by the Ministry of Education.
To the Ministry of Education
- Develop a time-bound, strategic plan to move
toward an inclusive education system that delivers quality education. Such a plan
- Specific timelines with measurable goals.
- An adequate budget that includes financial and other support to provincial and municipal bureaus of education which might not have adequate resources to deliver inclusive education.
- Measures to ensure that resources, including teachers, expertise, and equipment, are shifted from developing the special education system to making the mainstream system inclusive.
- A plan to train teachers, school administrators, and education officials at “all levels of education” in “disability awareness and the use of appropriate augmentative and alternative modes, means and formats of communication, educational techniques and materials to support people with disabilities,” as required by article 24(4) of the CRPD.
- Such a plan should be drawn up in consultation with independent disabled peoples’ organizations and parents’ organizations in the country.
- With the assistance of the Ministry of Health and the China Disabled People Federation (CDPF), immediately repeal the Guidelines for the Physical Examination of Students in Recruitment for Ordinary Higher Level Educational Institutions which sanction disability-based discrimination in higher education.
- Develop guidelines for the effective evaluation of students with disabilities studying in mainstream schools and ensure that their educational progress is reflected in the performance assessment of their teachers and schools.
- Provide financial and other resources, including adequately trained staff, to mainstream schools so that they can ensure the provision of reasonable accommodation for pupils and students with disabilities.
- Impose penalties on managers of mainstream schools that refuse admission to or expel students on the basis of disability, deny reasonable accommodation, or otherwise discriminate against students with disabilities by act or omission.
- Provide accessible transport to enable children with disabilities to access schools, especially in rural areas where distances to schools are great and the number of schools has been reduced.
- Establish formal mechanisms in schools at all levels of education for the active involvement of parents and children and young people with disabilities to ensure that they participate in consultations, decision-making, and monitoring processes in the implementation of inclusive education.
- Provide training in the principles of inclusive education to staff at CDPF and independent disability organizations to enable them to support families with children with disabilities.
- Encourage people with disabilities to apply
for positions in the education profession by:
- Amending the Regulations for Implementation of Teacher Qualifications to remove provisions which allow local governments to disqualify candidate teachers based on physical or mental characteristics not relevant to the particular job.
- Providing them with the necessary reasonable accommodations.
- Establish an independent body made up of
independent disability experts and representatives of children with
disabilities and their parents to:
- Monitor the school system’s compliance with relevant laws and regulations.
- Receive complaints about discrimination and lack of reasonable accommodation at mainstream schools.
- Identify remaining barriers to quality and inclusive education for students with disabilities.
- Make recommendations on actions the Ministry of Education can take to ensure access to inclusive education.
- Together with the China Disabled People
Federation and independent disability organizations, develop outreach programs
- Ensure that parents are informed of their children’s rights to an inclusive education, reasonable accommodation, and non-discrimination.
- Provide assistance to these families to make sure that they enjoy these rights in practice.
- Together with the CDPF and independent disability organizations, improve the distribution of assistive devices including visual and hearing aids and teaching materials such as Braille and large print textbooks, to children with disabilities in mainstream schools and coordinate such distribution with the schools.
- Ensure that special education institutions do not unduly segregate children with disabilities from the broader school-age population or from their families. Such can be accomplished by bringing children with and without disabilities into regular contact for activities and classes and allowing children with disabilities in residential facilities to reunite with their families as often as possible by providing more frequent free transportation between the schools and the students’ homes. Ensure that parents and children with disabilities are informed of their educational choices, including the option to send their children to special education schools.
To the Ministry of Health
- Together with the CDPF and the Ministry of Education, improve the early identification of disabilities in children and provide more comprehensive and regular individualized health and educational assessment for children with disabilities beyond simply issuing disability cards, which only note broad and simple disability categories.
To the Ministry of Civil Affairs
- Remove all forms of restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, especially those related to formal legal registration, and provide financial and other support to encourage the growth of independent disability organizations.
This report was reviewed and edited by Sophie Richardson, China director; Bede Sheppard, senior researcher in the Children's Rights Division; Shantha Rau Barriga, Disability Rights Division director; General Counsel Dinah Pokempner; and Joseph Saunders, deputy program director. Human Rights Watch is also grateful to two experts on disability in China, who wish to remain anonymous, for reviewing the report.
Production assistance was provided by Storm Tiv, Asia associate; Grace Choi, publications director; Kathy Mills, publications specialist; and Ivy Shen, multimedia and creative services officer. A China team research assistant and a research intern also contributed to the report.
Human Rights Watch is grateful to all the children, young people, parents, educators, disability advocates, CDPF staff members, and government officials whom we interviewed for this report. Special thanks go to the disability advocates who assisted us in arranging the interviews, provided research support, and continue to advocate for improved protections for the rights of people with disabilities in China.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): ADHD is a chronic condition that leads to the inability to sustain attention and to impulsive and hyperactive behavior. ADHD develops during childhood and might last through adulthood. It is a common condition that is estimated to affect between 3 to 5 percent of all children.
Albinism: Albinism refers to a genetic condition characterized by a deficiency of melanin pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes that provides protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Albinism affects people of all races and is not hereditary. People with albinism often have poor vision and are at greater risk of skin cancer.
Autism: Present from early childhood, autism is a condition characterized by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and nonverbal communication. Autism is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors which influence early brain development.
Cerebral palsy: Cerebral palsy is an impairment of muscular function and weakness of the limbs caused by lack of oxygen to the brain immediately after birth, brain injury during birth, or a viral infection. Often accompanied by poor motor skills, it sometimes involves speech and learning difficulties.
Intellectual disability: An intellectual disability is characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, problem solving) and in adaptive behavior, which covers a range of everyday social and practical skills.
Gaokao or The National Higher Education Entrance Examination: A nationwide academic examination that is administered in the last year of high school. It is considered very important as entrance to all higher education institutions in China depend on results from this exam, which is offered once a year. Almost all high school students in China take the gaokao.
Mental disability: Mental disability describes persons with mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Mental health difficulties are considered disabilities when they affect a person’s full and effective participation in society and are thus often called psychosocial disabilities.
ADHD Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
CDPF China Disabled Persons’ Federation
CEL The Compulsory Education Law
CRC Convention on the Rights of the Child
CRPD Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
ICESCR The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
LPDP Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities
LRC “Learning in regular class”
MMSACS Methods for Managing the ‘Study Along with the Class’ Scheme for Persons with Disabilities
REPD The Regulations on the Education of Persons with Disabilities