Reflections on the Lives of People with Disabilities in China

[Image description : A 26 year old woman with black hair sitting on a gray rock with mountains in the background, smiling at the camera.]


Since I was born and raised in mainland China, some of my foreign friends used to ask me, “why do I never see people with disabilities in China? Does China really have such a small population of people with disabilities?” They also wondered why people with disabilities always appear to be homeless people on the street and showing off their disabilities just to beg for money. It’s hard for me to answer those questions, because part of me really wants to tell them that China is all about families: that all people with disabilities are taken good care of by their families, so they never need to go out, but I know that’s probably not true.

So what is it really like? As the country with the largest population in the world, you would think China also has the largest population of people with disabilities, so what happens to people with disabilities in China?

The reality is that China currently does not have a systematized law that is specifically focused on the lives of people living with disabilities. Disability rights are instead documented in over 50 different pieces of  legislation with vague explanations.  

At the individual level, the living conditions of people with disabilities as a whole remains unclear on a national level. The China Disabled Persons’ Federation, essential statistics that could reflect the living conditions of people with disabilities (such as employment and education rates), are only reported in absolute numbers and not a percentage of the population. This presents a problem because, considering the humongous population of China, any number would look pretty significant on the report, however, that doesn’t give an accurate depiction of the issues.  

Recently, greater attention has been paid to the disabilities that have been featured by Hollywood movie. However, this is still a topic that’s considered a personal tragedy and “too heavy” to be brought to the public’s attention.

On July 6th, I attended the Chinese Medical Association’s National Pediatric Academic Conference. In China, Learning Disabilities are one type of disability that is seen as “non-apparent,”  and therefore, not even really categorized as a disability. Children who struggle academically are often labelled as “just not the academic type” or “just lazy.”Clinical diagnosis is the last thing people will consider for children who appear to be “normal,” but struggle in school.

As someone who tries to advocate for disability rights in China, I found  the most difficult part is  fighting the stereotypes people have about disability. It is so easy to label people with tags and make arbitrary associations to justify maltreatment towards people with disabilities. For example, oh, she can’t speak because she has autism; or, oh, he can’t pay attention because he has ADD ; or even, oh, don’t let your child to play with that child,  his dad has mental illness, so he must be “crazy” . If we don’t fight these stereotypes, they are going to expand like a virus and root in more people, even among experienced educators and policymakers who directly affect how society treats people with disabilities.

Compared with other developing countries in the world, China is not a unique case in regards to disability legislation, and the disability rights movement. The reasons behind the current status of the disability rights movement in China are not purely based in economics. It is important to remember that there are cultural and historical factors around the way people think about disability that may affect such a movement in China. However, despite these differences, in order for China to align with other nations in regards to disability policy, it is very important for the conversation needs to be continued.



Chaoran Chen is a summer intern at United Cerebral Palsy. This is her first year at the George Washington University , she is currently pursuing her PhD in Special Education and Disability Studies. Her research interests are autism and learning disability. Her cat Hutoko and food adventures keep her busy when she is not doing research or thinking about the topic for her dissertation.