Special needs education for the mentally disabled in China: a hidden story

Max's Column

“The school near us wouldn’t enroll him,” the mother of Chen Yufei, a disabled child in China’s Henan Province, shouted in despair. “Why wouldn’t they let us go to school?” This is a common issue faced by many disabled children in rural areas in China. The media often overlook this serious issue due to the astonishingly good statistics about public access to general education in China.

In 1986, the Chinese government launched the Nine-Year Initiative, aiming to improve educational attainment for youth. Overall, it succeeded, yielding an increase in the literacy rate from 65 percent in 1982 to  96.84 percent in 2018. However, the report neglects the fact that 28 percent of disabled children still do not receive the education that they are entitled to. In such a competitive society, where even those with graduate degrees struggle to find a job, people with disabilities have slim chances of succeeding. Among the 30 million people living in extreme poverty in China, 80 percent are disabled. 

 In China, a disabled person is defined as one who “suffers from abnormalities or loss of a certain organ or function, psychologically or physiologically, or in anatomical structure, and has lost wholly or in part the ability to perform an activity in the way considered normal”. When focusing on mental disabilities, explicitly learning and cognitive disabilities, approximately 23 million children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in China. However, the accuracy of this statistic is in question as 90 percent of children with ADHD are undiagnosed in China.

Clear differences exist in China depending on whether people are in rural or urban areas regarding access to learning resources, showing that the most damaging factor in accessing  education is location. Technology gives Chinese people hope to close the gap between rural and urban areas by providing education for disabled children. As long as infrastructure permits it, everyday technology such as a smartphone with applications will allow rural disabled kids to have telehealth appointments that were unreachable to them or have applications that could provide disabled children in rural areas with better access to specialized education.  With 974.69 million mobile phone users in China, over 63 percent of rural area residents own smartphones,  such applications can be integrated seamlessly into the daily routines of disabled people in rural areas, making these plans a real possibility. 

Prejudice serves as a barrier to educating students with mental disabilities.

 Discrimination against children and young people with mental disabilities permeates all levels of education in the mainstream system. In an educational system that promotes test scores as paramount to intelligence due to the gaokao system, (a test that determines the college one attends), students with learning difficulties suffer the most. Disabled students are constantly stigmatized. They are sometimes outright denied school enrollment and often face complaints from teachers, fellow students, and even parents in a traditional class setting. Unlike many other education systems, it is not a common practice in Chinese educational institutions to accommodate those with mental disabilities. Thus, students with mental and cognitive disabilities do not have the proper support and underperform. The lack of protection from the law and the security of human rights supposedly guaranteed by the Ministry allows these abuses to happen. 

Opportunities have been persistently neglected for disabled students in China

The quality of education for disabled people is abysmal in rural areas. Special needs schools are hard to find in rural areas as most are in the capital of provinces or developed regions. In addition, the instructors in charge have little to no training in disabilities. According to the 2016 National Education Statistics, student and unique education-teacher ratios were reasonable (4:1) in China. Special needs instructors (more than 97.6 percent)   have only been trained to deal with physical disabilities (such as blind or deaf students) and not learning issuesAs a result, many students with disabilities find themselves sitting in classrooms without being able to follow the curriculum. This leads to failing performance and declining confidence, which only reinforces the effects of existing discrimination. While the government has tried to combat these issues by investing more in rural public schools, the funds and training have not been sufficient. 

The contrast between urban and rural areas in special needs education is astonishing. In urban areas, inclusive education starts at the preschool level. In major cities such as Beijing, children attending preschool are treated by an educational team encompassed by special ed teachers, and progress is monitored. Students can access individualized learning experiences and share learning spaces with other children. The government of Shanghai also thrives on creating inclusive education opportunities, including continuing education for teachers.  There, the local government has already released a framework for inclusive education development, which promises to provide systematic support to every school under its jurisdiction. 

Immediate actions and future policies

Offering equal treatment to special education children and training faculty are not priorities for the Chinese government. Progress has been limited because of unclear policies and insufficient investment in rural areas.

 Such issues are essential to bringing to light because of their humanitarian implication.  Access to basic education, which is provided in urban areas, would reduce the gap between the rich and the poor giving everyone equal chances to succeed.

Given China’s evident lack of special ed programs in rural areas as well as the existing infrastructure, a plausible solution is to bring schools, therapies, and doctors together through smartphones. The infrastructure is already there. Applications are already in development. An example is Xiaotian a Chinese artificial intelligent chatbot that provides professional psychological counseling 24/7 to anyone who has the app. In addition, doctors from urban areas could be utilized through telecommunication apps such as Zoom to diagnose and give advice to those in rural areas. 

Teachers in rural areas are often burdened with teaching many students, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. By bringing in AI assistant teachers, they can provide specialized care to each student by analyzing the speech patterns of these students which have a success rate exceeding 90 percent. They also help to disabled children by increasing their attention span through the stimuli related to computer technologies. The AI teachers will also be able to help mentally disabled children by using existing options such as collaborating with private companies like Squrriel AI, which has already been proven to be effective with students in Hangzhou. Teachers just need to answer questions that are brought up by students when they don’t understand the AI’s explanation which would lessen the burden on teachers there. 

Also, the Chinese government should provide more funds to enhance the internet in rural areas, focusing on the application of 5G. This would allow for better quality connections with expert doctors and teachers from urban areas, opportunities to collaborate with private companies that specialize in AI education for the mentally disabled, and the ability to collaborate with cell phone companies to provide affordable phones and internet plans.

 AI can be the window of opportunity that disabled people need to receive adequate education and care. China’s improvement in this area could positively impact its humanitarian reputation worldwide.