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China’s New Regulations for Persons with Disabilities Are a Good Step—but Not Enough

Students gathered around a table in a classroom
Children watch a classmate write Chinese characters at an elementary school in Shanghai, China, on September 8, 2016. © Fred Dufour/Getty

In December 2016, parents at a Beijing elementary school pulled their children out of school for multiple days to protest the continued presence of an eight-year-old autistic child, Xiaofang (not her real name), in their children’s classroom. Claiming that Xiaofang was a bad influence on their children, the parents launched a public and media campaign with a simple goal: to pressure Xiaofang’s parents and her school into transferring her to a so-called special school, one that only received children with disabilities. 

Figuring out how to deal with Xiaofang, however, proved difficult. Professional assessments deemed that it would be inappropriate to place Xiaofang in one of Beijing’s special schools; but because education regulations required Xiaofang to attend the school closest to her home, a school transfer was not an option. Her local mainstream school, meanwhile, claimed that it lacked the necessary resources to support Xiaofang. The girl’s only real option, therefore, was to forego an education and to stay at home. 

China’s revised Regulations on Education for Persons with Disabilities, which come into force on May 1, 2017, attempt to better solve cases like Xiaofang’s. Millions of students with disabilities have struggled within China’s education system, the vast majority of them in segregated special schools. Worse still, these students are in some ways the lucky ones: many children like them—especially those who are migrants—are kept out of the classroom altogether. 

The regulations have, for the first time, made the promotion of inclusive education a key principle, signaling a policy shift away from a category-based approach (rural–urban, migrant–native, students with or without disabilities) and toward a more unified set of recommendations and guidelines. These guidelines include how local governments should allocate their resources towards improving teaching capacity and accessibility of schools, as well as codifying the provision of reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities in national education testing. The regulations’ emphasis on making sure children with disabilities are educated in mainstream schools is a significant break from past education policies, which entrenched these children’s segregation. 

This dramatic shift is a testament to the patient tenacity of those advocates who have pushed Chinese authorities to embrace inclusive education as the best policy approach for delivering quality education to all children. Through pilot projects and comparative research on inclusive practices in other countries, grassroots disability rights groups, NGOs, activists, self-advocates, parents, and educators have all challenged the dominant narrative, which holds that inclusive education is too expensive, too difficult to understand, and too difficult to implement in developing countries like China.

The new regulations also point to the influence of the Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) as a platform where grassroots Chinese groups can engage with the government, and as a potentially important tool for domestic advocacy. At China’s 2012 CRPD review, Chinese and international civil society groups, many of which have been supported by the Open Society Foundations, highlighted the gap between CRPD principles and the on-the-ground reality in China. 

Although many advocates grant that the regulations are a sign of progress, others worry that the law alone will not do enough to promote genuine inclusion, and could be remembered as mere lip service. As one advocate noted, the regulations are light on details—and the lack of a “zero refusal” policy, along with a continued insistence that students demonstrate the ability to “receive an ordinary education” as a prerequisite to access mainstream schools (Article 17), could undermine its progressive elements. 

Poor societal understanding of inclusion, parental opposition, and the lack of trained teachers also represent further obstacles to improvement. Recent research, for example, indicates that although 77 percent of teachers surveyed have taught students with special needs, as many as 60 percent of them have never received any training on how to teach in inclusive settings. Changing how frontline teachers and school administrators engage with their students is key to institutionalizing inclusive education policies.

Ultimately, transformative change requires far more than the reformation of laws and policies. It requires parents, teachers, and administrators to understand the rights-based goals and philosophies that underpin them.

In the end, meaningful implementation will require that new cultural beliefs replace deeply ingrained discriminatory stereotypes about persons with disabilities. Despite being a step in the right direction, by focusing on where students attend school, rather than how they learn, the regulations reveal the Ministry of Education’s reluctance to invest in the long, hard work of changing how individuals conceive of good education, social inclusion, and equality for all students.

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