Special Educational Needs - Where the disabled are hidden away

China under fire for poor record on inclusive education

Parts of China's school system have won plaudits for their impressive results in international league tables. But according to a new report, children with disabilities or special educational needs in the country experience discrimination - or receive no education at all.

The study, by charity Human Rights Watch, found that children with even mild SEN face serious challenges in accessing education in China, with laws stipulating that they have to be "capable of adapting to regular study conditions". Children with more serious SEN are excluded from mainstream education altogether, the report says.

According to the Chinese government, there are 1,540 special schools in the country, but being educated in one can mean that a child is separated from their peers and family, according to the study.

"[Mainstream] schools sometimes place conditions on parents, such as requiring that they accompany their children to and in school every day, before they allow their children to study in the schools," the report states.

Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, said she hopes that the number of disabled children in China who are not given access to education will fall in the next five to 10 years.

"Some schools are taking very good steps and working towards certain aims but they are doing this without resources," she said.

"There really is a long way still to go, particularly in respect of creating an inclusive education system," she added. "The treatment of children with disabilities is effectively, if not explicitly, overtly discriminatory."

Ms Richardson said that many of the issues are basic - such as the fact that national university entrance tests are not available in Braille - and they could be "easily remedied".

Researchers carried out in-depth interviews with parents, students, disability-rights campaigners and government officials. They identified problems including a lack of magnified printed materials for students with limited vision; teachers being unaware of how to tailor lessons to the needs of children with hearing impairments; and a lack of properly adapted toilets for young people.

One child from Henan Province, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, told researchers that the principal of his local school would not accept him because he would "affect other children".

It took his mother two years to find him a place at a special school in another district, and she claims that she had to bribe officials for this to happen.

Yong Zhao, associate dean for global education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, said that people in Western nations sometimes "romanticised" Chinese education for its focus on results.

He said that a cultural shift is needed to extend opportunities to students with SEN.

"The Chinese term for people who are disabled means `deformed' or `useless'. Many schools don't want disabled children to attend because they fear it might damage their reputation," Dr Zhao said. "Competition is fierce. Other parents do not want their children learning with those who are disabled because they think it will drag down the achievements of other students.

"The government is trying to address this. It is hard for cultures to change, but in China it is changing due to growing awareness of human rights and because the country is getting wealthier."

The Human Rights Watch report, "As Long as They Let Us Stay in Class": barriers to education for persons with disabilities in China, is available at bit.lyLetUsStay.

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