China has released revised regulations on education for people with disabilities. However, despite positive changes to guaranteeing education for persons with disabilities, they still fall short in critical areas, says Maya Wang, a researcher at New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch.

A government spokesperson said that the aim of the revision was to promote inclusive education, to reconfigure the foundation of special education resources, to improve admissions for those with disabilities so students can receive education according to their conditions, and to strengthen the government’s protection and support for persons with disabilities.

The new rules were passed on January 11 at a State Council meeting and the full version was released on the State Council’s website on Thursday. It is the second amendment to the education for people with disabilities regulations passed in 1994, and will take effect on May 1.

Morning exercise for schoolchildren in Xi’an. Photo: Flickr/Tom Thai.

Premier Li Keqiang said during the State Council meeting in January that the new regulations emphasise guaranteeing compulsory education to persons with disabilities, broadening vocational education, and especially preventing all kinds of discrimination during school admissions, according to state news agency Xinhua.

The most recent statistics released by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) in 2014 said that, in 2013, 72.7 per cent of children with disabilities from ages six to 14 received compulsory education, compared with the government’s claim that nearly all children without disabilities receive compulsory education. The State Council set a goal in 2014 of raising the ratio to 90 per cent and above in three years.

Maya Wang, who has been following the issue at Human Rights Watch, she said that the revised regulations have some positive aspects, such as the sections on funding allocation and teacher training.

Among other things, they state that county level governments should allow for the costs of providing special education for students in their budget, urge the governments to offer subsidies to those with financial difficulties, and set out requirements for special education teachers, including that they must have undergone training provided by government organisations.

“Those are kind of positive aspects that show that there is some level of interest in moving this closer towards international standards,” said Wang.

“And that also shows both domestic activism, international activism, and the UN mechanism do have some positive impact on the Chinese government’s behaviour on some of the human rights issues. But the regulations still fall short in critical areas on guaranteeing the right to education for kids with disabilities.”

The Chinese government in 2008 ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which calls for states to ensure an inclusive education system at all levels. Currently, China has two parallel systems of education – one for students with disabilities, and the mainstream system for students without disabilities, instead of identifying and removing barriers to an inclusive education for students with disabilities.

In one incident in December, parents at an elementary school in Beijing protested with banners and pulled their children out of class for three days “for their safety.” They called for the school to take action about a student who they claimed had autism and was disrupting the class, and asked for her to be moved to a different school, according to k618, an official news outlet focused on education.

The revised regulations state that it is preferable to put students with disabilities in mainstream schools, which is a step in the right direction, said Wang, but the problem is that the government continues to commit to its system of separating students. According to the revisions, government departments will set up “educational professional committees” in conjunction with the CDPF to assess students and place them in schools or switch them into different schools.

“The emphasis is on placing kids which this committee thinks could adapt to life in mainstream schools, rather than saying: how do we ensure these kids can get an education in mainstream schools?” said Wang.

Direct contradiction

The new regulations state that “the country guarantees that persons with disabilities can enjoy equal opportunities to receive education, and prohibits any educational discrimination based on disability.”

But Wang said it is directly contradicted by another set of guiding opinions issued in 2003, which enable higher education institutes to ban students with certain disabilities or health problems from studying certain subjects, or to refuse to admit them to the school.

Students applying to universities must undergo a medical examination, and the guiding opinions state that schools can choose, for example, not to admit students with epilepsy or “serious mental illnesses that have not been cured,” or choose not to allow students with non-severe colour blindness to study psychology. The guidelines are still very much referenced to, Wang said.

“The Chinese government continues to allow for discrimination at the higher education level today, and until this is removed, then the general new regulations on the education of people with disabilities are unlikely to generate any kind of positive effects in this area,” she said.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.