China’s special-education citadels on campus need remodelling

Confining students with disabilities to ‘special-education castles’ within Chinese universities does not provide true opportunity, says Zhang Yuexin

August 31, 2020
Source: istock

For people with disability in China, it has always been extremely difficult to pursue higher education.

Historically, the country’s education system, heavily influenced by Confucianism, has excluded people with disabilities from its selection criteria for junzi (ideal talent). In the decades after the gao kao (as the National College Entrance Examination is known) was resumed in 1977, following a 10-year hiatus during the Cultural Revolution, higher education was a scarce resource for all, so students with disabilities had hardly any chance to compete.

In the 1980s, a handful of institutions started recruiting students with disabilities in some departments. These later developed into a few “special education” colleges, offering subjects considered best suited to students with disabilities, such as music, gardening and Chinese medicine. This is better than nothing, but building a separate castle on campus for students with special needs – even one that, in recent years, has sometimes been opened to students without disabilities, too – is still a long way from real inclusive education.

No Chinese academic would disagree that higher education needs to take care of every student’s various and diverse needs, including allowing students with disabilities to choose what to study, based on their interests and abilities, in all universities. But, practically, there is an obvious gap.

Prior to 2015, students with disabilities in general secondary schools were required to compete in the gao kao without reasonable accommodations, while those in special-education schools were barred from taking the mainstream gao kao altogether. They had to take separate exams that had lower grade thresholds but which gave them only very limited options for higher education study.

All that has now changed, but the cold reality is that students with disabilities remain somewhat invisible in leading Chinese universities – especially outside their special-education colleges. And although there is no specific statistic to track whether there have been any changes post-2015, we can tell the story partly by looking at the number of applicants for reasonable accommodations in the gao kao. We find, for instance, that only five visually impaired students took the general gao kao in 2020.

Evidently, clearing the regulatory obstacle is just the first step for students with disabilities. More support for them is also needed in primary and secondary education to make them more competitive in the gao kao. Even when they are integrated into mainstream education, there is often criticism that they lack professional support and awareness from educators.

In particular, greater effort needs to be made to raise the ambitions of students with disabilities. Confining them to special-education schools leads to lower educational expectations from parents, educators and society; it is considered sufficient if they acquire the skills to look after themselves.

Academics therefore advocate an earlier inclusive education that provides genuinely high-quality, fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities, equipping them with the skills and confidence to walk out of universities’ special-needs castles.

After studying this area for many years, I have mixed feelings. I am certainly excited to see a positive response to students with disabilities’ need for a fair educational opportunity. Even the college’s name, the School of Inclusive Education, is encouraging; it has a completely different positioning from universities’ existing special-education castles.

However, the move also highlights the lack of such developments at many other Chinese universities – particularly the ones included in the Double First Class scheme – with rich resources in education studies.

The new college could become a flag to raise awareness of inclusive higher education and push for its wider adoption. But this will only happen if its parent university works with a wide range of partners to address this bigger picture. If it doesn’t, the School of Inclusive Education risks becoming just another special-education college with a different name.

Zhang Yuexin is an associate professor at the Faculty of Education and deputy director at the Institute of Special Education at Beijing Normal University. This article is translated by Liu Jing.


Print headline: Access is not a special need

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities