Progress for China’s Disability Advocates
February 5, 2020
In the late 1960s, Judy Heumann sued the New York City Board of Education for denying her a teaching license because she used a wheelchair. Heumann won her case and became the first teacher in a wheelchair in New York City, where she taught elementary school for three years. Heumann went on to become a leader in the disability rights movement nationally and internationally.
Fast forward and a quick scene change to China in 2019, where disabled people who dream of teaching are still excluded by a physical exam.
In March 2019, Zheng, a blind college graduate, was denied a teaching job at the Special School for the Blind in Nanjing, China, despite the fact that he ranked at the top in both the written and oral exams for the job. Four years earlier, in 2015, Zheng had been the first blind student in his province to take China’s all-important college entrance exam in braille. But when he sought employment as a teacher, he failed the physical exam due to his impaired vision.
China first offered the college entrance exam in braille in 2014, a step seen at the time as a major breakthrough. After passing the exam in 2015, Zheng pursued a bachelor’s degree, graduating in 2019. But despite his tremendous effort and determination, Zheng could not overcome the last hurdle. Facing this obstacle, he followed a different path than Judy Heumann in the 1960s: he chose not to take his case to court, and has written in a recent article that he still hopes the system will find a way for him.
This is not surprising in the Chinese context, where litigation is not always a sure path to disability justice. In an earlier case, Wang, a woman who had trained to teach preschool, was denied a teaching license because she had a prosthetic eye. Unlike Zheng, she sued the local board of education, but three years of trials and appeals did not win her a license to teach.
Both Zheng and Wang were denied their teaching dream by regulations of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the National Health Commission, and the State Administration of Civil Service in China. The regulations contain over twenty articles specifying different health standards for qualified civil servants in the country, among which visual impairment (article 19) and hearing impairment (article 20) are categorized as disqualifying conditions.
The physical requirements apply not just to official government employment, but to college admissions as well. All prospective students undergo a mandatory physical examination along with the college entrance exam. The physical requirements for admission include three major areas, one of which clearly states that institutions of higher education cannot admit students with certain physical conditions. The physical requirements also allow universities or colleges to bar disabled students from certain majors or programs. People with color blindness, for example, cannot be admitted into programs in fine arts, museum studies, applied physics, geography, and other subjects. People with physical disabilities such as limb difference are discouraged from choosing over 40 majors or programs, including agriculture, geology, and environmental science.
As a student using a prosthetic leg, who went through the physical examination before taking the college entrance exam in 2006, I worried that I might be unable to pursue my education. I was fortunate, however, as China had started to recruit students with disabilities in higher education in 1985, several years before I was born. (Binzhou Medical College that year recruited 57 students with physical disabilities.) Yet, three and a half decades later, this expansion of access to higher education remains quite limited, and disabled students who successfully gain admission to college are typically those who have mild physical disabilities (as opposed to visual or hearing impairments) and who can adapt to the requirements for study with little or no accommodation from the school.
A year after China began offering the college entrance exam in braille in 2014, the Ministry of Education announced that the exam would make reasonable accommodations for students with other disabilities. This was the direct result of a three-year campaign by Chinese disability advocates and the larger community. But now, as a few disabled students who gained access to higher education in 2015 finish their degrees, they are encountering regulatory barriers that exclude them from employment in the public sector. Ironically, a blind teacher like Zheng cannot even get a teaching position in a school for the blind, where he could serve as a role model to visually impaired students.
While the lack of disabled academics has recently drawn expressions of concern in other international contexts, the barriers faced by disabled Chinese are even more fundamental. The existence of institutional physical requirements in job screening constitutes discrimination based on disability. Facing these disqualifying physical requirements, it is unsurprising that academics and public employees with disabilities are rare in China. In the United States, by way of comparison, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act lay the legal foundation for disabled Americans to participate equally in education, employment, and more. Employers are prohibited from discriminating against people based on disability, with the result that Americans with disabilities can be found today working in many different sectors and industries.
Zheng and Wang are not the only ones with disabilities who have encountered regulatory discrimination in their pursuit of employment and other opportunities. Physical requirements for public-sector employment deter people with disabilities from pursuing many professions. This discrimination is often an insurmountable barrier, and it is still rare to see people with disabilities in Chinese institutions of higher learning and other professional settings. With little public visibility, Chinese people with disabilities remain isolated and misunderstood, their needs and voices neglected by policymakers. It is hoped that these discriminatory physical requirements will eventually be removed, and the rights and voices of Chinese with disabilities will be recognized and respected, so they can join their fellow citizens as full contributors to society.
LuanJiao “Aggie” Hu is a doctoral candidate in international education policy at the University of Maryland and a 2018 Asia Foundation Development Fellow. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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