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Being Salt and Light Among the Disabled in China

James Palmer, a Beijing-based journalist has penned an excellent, yet disturbing, piece about the disabled in China, titled "Crippling Injustice." "Disabled people in modern China," he writes, "are still stigmatised, marginalised and abused." "What hope is there for reform?"

He opens his essay by writing about 20-year old Mia, a disabled woman who, at that age, still lived in a children's home in Louyang1:

Born with scoliosis, she stood around 4ft 6in, her back crooked and walking with the aid of crutches. It was common practice to call nameless girls Dang ('party') and boys Guo ('state'), and so her name was Dang Miaomiao, 'little darling of the party'.

He writes of the obstacles she (and others who are disabled) faces for education and employment:

Despite her intelligence, she had not received any university offers, and her chances of employment were worryingly slight. Chinese universities routinely reject qualified candidates with the excuse that their 'physical condition does not meet the needs of study' a policy of discrimination written into some schools' constitutions. Meanwhile, figures published in Chinese state media last year show that only a quarter of disabled people are able to find any form of employment.

He then goes on to explore the administrative and cultural underpinnings of the plight of China's disabled, pointing out that looking at policies reveals one thing, but reality is quite different:

If you judged the country by its laws alone, China would be a global leader on disability rights. The 'Laws on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities', introduced in 1990, offer strong and wide-ranging protection of the civil rights of the disabled, guaranteeing employment, education, welfare, and access. But despite the high concerns of the law, Chinese cities make little concession to disabled people. As the sociologist Yu Jianrong has documented, raised pathways for the blind often lead into dead ends, bollards, trees or open pits, or else spiral decoratively but misleadingly. Wheelchair access is non-existent, especially outside Beijing or Shanghai, and guide dogs are effectively forbidden from most public spaces, despite the authorities' repeated promises of full access.

Part of the problem is bureaucratization. There are numerous laws and regulations and even a China Disabled Persons' Federation, but corruption has made these ineffective.

Cultural prejudice also plays a role:

Underneath these institutional factors, and just as important, are layers of cultural prejudice. Take the now strongly enforced requirement to employ disabled people. More than 90 per cent of businesses, according to the CDPF, have preferred to take the substantial financial hit rather than comply with the mandate.

A range of excuses are offered up for non-compliance, often disguising prejudice as practicality. 'I don't have a problem with them, but people are uncomfortable with the disabled. If they saw we had disabled waitresses, they wouldn't come. Besides, our restaurant has many stairs. It would be too hard for them,' the manager of a popular eatery in Tangshan told me.

Another factor is the traditional conflating of morality and biology:

One of the most powerful of these is the patriarchal Confucian notion of the importance of lineage. Confucianism sees the body, especially if male, as part of a chain of continuity stretching back to an individual's ancestors and forward to his descendants. In this vision, a crippled or deformed body is a perversion one often attributed to the moral or spiritual flaws of parents, especially mothers, who are blamed for their failure to follow medical superstitions, such as post-natal confinement or the avoidance of certain foods during pregnancy.

The article then takes a particularly interesting turn when he makes note of his observation that where the disabled in China are being cared for, it is almost always being done by Christians (foreign and local):

There is a long link between Christianity and disabled care in China. The first modern disability organisations, established in the 1920s and focused around blindness, grew out of medical missionary care. Evangelical Christians are prominent as both clients and staff of adoption agencies, many of which are explicitly religious; and among disability NGOs and care groups, a disproportionate number of the staff and workers, in my experience, are local Christians.

As the religious environment has loosened over the past decade, Christians have been taking more active steps to be salt and light in their communities by seeking to meet some of the physical and social needs of the people. It's good to see that being noticed.

One foreign group reaching out to the disabled in China is Joni and Friends. Click here to see what they are doing in Asia and who their partners are. Two of Joni Erickson-Tada's books (Where is God? and A Step Further) have been translated and legally published in China.

Shepherd's Field Children's Village, outside of Beijing is also doing wonderful things with disabled children, many of whom have been abandoned.

Last year, Chinese Church Voices posted a translated article about a church for the blind, in Shenyang.

May God raise up more believers in China to minister to the disabled and their families.


1 Mia was sponsored by an evangelical Christian American couple to live and study in the US in 2006 and now lives with roommates and works in childcare development in Seattle.

Image credit: Palm Reader in TEDA, by Jim Harper, via Flickr

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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul …View Full Bio

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