View From the Wall

A Glance at People with Disabilities in China

Prior to the year 1980, people with disabilities in China were referred to as canfei (残废), which means “the handicapped and useless.” However, it has been forty years since China “opened the door” and began economic innovation. With rapid economic growth, nearly 200 million people have been brought out of poverty, and social attitudes towards people with disabilities have gone through a gradual, yet fundamental, change. In China today, the term canji ren (残疾人) meaning “persons with disabilities” is now commonly used in the general public and official Chinese documentation as well as widely accepted by society. Due to a series of constructive administrative and legislative actions, in combination with the work of disability organizations (of governmental background or grass-roots, both domestic and international), the overall living conditions and social status of people with disabilities in China have improved to a great degree compared to thirty or forty years ago. Still, the majority of people with disabilities live in poverty.

Since it is of significant importance to safeguard the rights of people with disabilities, the “Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons”was promulgated in the year 1990 and amended in 2008. It addresses issues of rehabilitation, education, employment, cultural life, welfare, access, legal liability, and others. In accordance with the law, people with disabilities are referred to as those who suffer from abnormalities due to the loss of a certain organ or function, psychologically, physiologically, or in anatomical structure, and have lost wholly, or in part, the ability to perform an activity in the way considered, “normal.” The term canji ren (残疾人) references people with “visual, hearing, speech or physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, multiple disabilities and/or other disabilities.”[1]

The China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), established in 1988, initially was under the Ministry of Civil Affairs; it then became an independent government agency growing into a nationwide umbrella network with about 90,000 fulltime workers and reaching every part of China. The CDPF is committed to promoting humanitarianism, the human rights of people with disabilities, and the integration of people with disabilities in all aspects. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that 15% of the world’s population has a disability. According to the National Population Investigation in 2006, there are 82.96 million disabled people in China; most of these live in poverty. The definition of disability and the policies/standards related to people with disabilities in China are strongly influenced by medical-social models, including the WHO’s “International Classification of Impairment, Disability and Handicap (IC-IDH).” If using the WHO’s figure, there should be around 200 million disabled people in China. The main reason for the differing figures is that China has a relatively higher standard definition of “disability.” Another reason is that some people with disabilities are considered “shameful” by the local culture and are hidden by their families and relatives.

People with Disabilities and Accessibility in China

Within China’s cities, the majority of the nation’s major airports are now accessible to the disabled. The accessibility level of inner-city transportation has improved but is limited to major cities. For example, in 2004, accessible bus lines in Beijing and a newly constructed accessible subway system in Shenzhen began to operate.[2] Considering Beijing is China’s capital and Shenzhen is the leading-edge city of Chinese economic growth, there is yet much room for improvement.

There is a disabled accessibility requirement for new buildings but no requirement for renovation of older buildings. For example, it is still a challenge for people in wheelchairs to access most of the restaurants, even in the large cities.

In rural areas, due to the local culture, houses usually have a threshold to “keep the devils out.” This affords a challenge for people with disabilities. Most people have no idea of how important accessibility is and how much it can benefit people with disabilities, making their lives much easier. In addition, there is also a lack of knowledge regarding how to make places accessible to the disabled.

People with Disabilities and Rehabilitation in China

The Chinese health care system is currently experiencing a transition from “public expense” to market-based. This means the individual, the employer, and the state share the financial responsibilities. Many people with disabilities are unemployed, and they cannot afford to purchase medical insurance.

Providing rehabilitation services, delivered through rehabilitation centers as well as through Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) initiatives, is the major responsibility of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF). CBR has the goal of improving the physical functioning and independent living skills of people with disabilities with the end result being to facilitate their participation in both social life and their community.  

The Chinese government and nongovernmental organizations also work in collaboration to respond to the needs of people with disabilities. This is particularly true for people in poverty-stricken rural regions who cannot afford rehabilitation services.

People with Disabilities and Education in China

In China, children with disabilities face significant difficulties in accessing education. The rate of school dropouts (or who never go to school) for children with disabilities among 6-17 year olds is 34.74%; among these more than half never go to school.[3]

By law, mainstream schools must accept students with disabilities; however, some schools fail to provide for the particular learning needs of these students. Others just say “No” to admitting them using the excuse that parents do not want their children to be in the same classroom as children with disabilities. Unfortunately, this is very characteristic in China, especially in early childhood education. A lack of accessibility and reasonable accommodation on campuses presents barriers to students with disabilities. Only if they can demonstrate their ability to adapt to the school’s environment and not “bother” other students will they be included in mainstream schools.

Students with disabilities who overcome all the barriers and reach higher education face additional challenges. As part of the college admission process, government policy requires students to have a physical examination. The government also has policies that allow colleges and universities to restrict candidates with disabilities. Each college or university has authority, given by the government, to make their own rules relating to candidates with disabilities—usually policies that are not friendly to these students. Some colleges and universities will set higher entrance standards for students with disabilities. For example, candidates with disabilities are required to have College Entrance Examination scores higher than those normally required for enrollment.

There are also special education schools in China, but these are usually limited to certain categories of disabilities, and the number of these schools is very limited. To find one that fits the need of a disabled child is always a challenge for the parents. In addition, once a special education school is chosen, many students have to move away from their families; sometimes this is a requirement and other times because the school is far away from the family’s home. Because of this, these children have an “abnormal” childhood and are isolated from the general population, often even from their own families.

People with Disabilities and Employment in China

Work provides people with a living but also gives people a feeling of being useful; this is especially true for people with disabilities. After decades of disregard, the right to work for those with disabilities is still a difficult idea for most people. Because of their poor educational foundation, when it comes to employment, some people will say: “It’s getting harder and harder for a college graduate to find a job; Why should a position be offered to a person with disability?”

The “Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons” states that: “No discrimination shall be practiced against disabled persons in employment, engagement, status regularization, promotion, determining technical or professional titles, payroll for labor, welfare, labor insurance or any other aspect.” Despite the fact that the right for people with disabilities to work is guaranteed by the law, unfortunately, the law is poorly enforced.

Estimates for the percentage of employment of people with disabilities vary widely depending on the definitions used for employment and disability. It is a daunting number, although there are more than three-thousand employment service centers in China providing services that range from vocational training to job matching to consultation for people with disabilities seeking employment. These centers receive financial support from the government. The skills training programs the government offers continue to remain in areas like massage, matchbox making, and so on.

The Chinese government also promotes self-employment for people with disabilities by providing technical and financial assistance plus tax deductions or exemption. This area benefits well-educated or “more able” people with disabilities.

People with Disabilities and the Church in China

Love needs to be seen and demonstrated in action. Traditionally, Christianity has provided social services in China. Back in the 19th and 20th centuries, Christians in China established clinics and hospitals; they also founded numerous modern schools from the primary to university levels.[4] Christians are fully involved with social services.

During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, believers were arrested and imprisoned for their faith. The expression of religious life was banned by the government. Christianity began to recover after the economic reforms of the late 1970s. Since then, churches have been growing rapidly. However, they are always “too busy” and lack both the resources and ability to even consider serving people with disabilities. Some organizations, like Joni and Friends, have started to step in and work with churches. Slowly the churches are realizing the need and mutual benefit between people with disabilities and church growth.

In 2012, the Chinese government issued a policy to encourage religious groups, including Christian churches, to engage in service to people with disabilities. This is a great opportunity—although there is a long way to go. Churches can play a big role in serving people with disabilities which will enable society to have a better understanding of the Christian community. 

Share to Social Media


Y-Wang worked in China for over ten years as a medical doctor serving people affected by disability. View Full Bio