SEN in China: a great leap forward?


    The Chinese experience of special education, where scarce resources and a lack of expertise have challenged the drive to educate those with SEN

    Roughly 2,500 years ago, one of the classic Confucian works, Liji (Book of Rites), advocated that disadvantaged people, including senior citizens, bachelors, widows, orphans, and individuals with disabilities and health problems, should be supported by government. The Confucian ideology emphasizes social order and harmony and it served as the foundation of Chinese culture and political development throughout the period of feudal dynasties which ruled the country for over two thousand years. Under such a philosophy, people with disabilities were supported by society to ensure their survival, but they were kept at the bottom of the hierarchical feudal pyramid. While the culture emphasised sympathy and promoted welfare support for those with disabilities, education was reserved for those of higher social status who were trained to fulfil roles in society’s elites.

    The earliest institutions for special education in China were set up in the late nineteenth century by US and European missionaries, with the spread of Western influence in the country, and followed up by Chinese government and social organizations. By 1949, there were only 42 special schools serving more than 2,000 students who were blind and deaf in China, a nation which had a population of over 450 million, and education for mental retardation and other disability categories was simply not available at that time.

    After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Government transformed the schools previously administered by foreign, charity or private organizations into state-run schools, forming the foundation for the state education system. The Government made efforts to expand segregated special schools, in keeping with the expansion of socialist humanitarian ideology which stressed that people with disabilities could be trained to be socialist labourers as other citizens.

    Resolutions on the Reform of the School System (1951), the first education policy document published by the communist government, stated that governments of all levels should establish special schools such as those for the deaf and the blind. Consequently, by 1955, the number of special schools had increased to 57 and the number of enrolled students with disabilities to 5,312. By 1965 these figures had increased dramatically to 266 and 22,850 respectively. However, due to political disturbance in the 1970s, these numbers remained fairly static throughout the decade. Indeed, services shrunk and the delivery model was entirely restricted to special schools following the Soviet Union’s concept of the deficit model.

    The Open and Reform policy under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership in the 1980s resulted in tremendous social and economic progress in China, and encouraged more governmental attention on to the rights of people with disabilities. The newly revised Constitution in 1982 stated that “the nation is responsible for providing citizens with blindness, deafness, muteness, and other disabilities with opportunities to work, live and be educated”, and the Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China, enacted in 1986, mandated that “all children who have reached the age of six shall be enrolled in school and receive compulsory education for the prescribed number of years”. Since then, the school enrolment rate for students with disabilities has become a quality index of school district performance nationwide.

    However, the national survey of disability in 1987 showed that China had approximately 5,164 million people with disabilities among its population of almost 1.1 billion (the 2006 survey showed 8,296 million people with disabilities in a total population of 1.3 billion). About five per cent (6.34 per cent in 2006) of the population was found to have disabling conditions falling into six categories: visual impairment, hearing and speech impairment, physical disability, intellectual disability, psychiatric disability and multiple disabilities.

    By 1988, less than seven per cent of children with visual or hearing impairments were enrolled in school, and education for children with intellectual disabilities was almost nonexistent until 1979, although children with intellectual disabilities formed the largest part (5.39 million) of the disability population of school age. The fact that the majority of children with disabilities were denied education at that time presented severe challenges to the Government and society at large. More service delivery options, other than establishing additional special schools, needed to be developed, since it would have been difficult to build these schools quickly enough to accommodate so many children with disabilities and there was a lack of resources and expertise to maintain them.

    Following the introduction of mainstreaming and inclusion to China in the 1980s, and in response to the Government’s compulsory education mandate, a national movement for inclusive education called Learning in Regular Classrooms (LRC) was quickly initiated. A new special education service model was formed on the principal that “special schools constitute the ‘backbone’ of the system while special classes and LRC programs serve as the ‘body’”. The system was backed up by many laws and regulations relating to special education which were passed during this period. Serving students with disabilities now had a range of service options, covering special schools, classes and LRC, with LRC as the major initiative. The nationwide enrolment of children with disabilities into school rose from six to 60 per cent between 1987 and 1996 and reached 80 per cent after 2000. In 1990, LRC programs served approximately eighteen per cent of all students identified with disabilities who were studying in schools, but by 2009, this figure had risen to 65 per cent.

    With the sharp increase in the numbers of children with disabilities being included in general classrooms, teachers in China faced the challenges of meeting diverse needs, and a number of strategies were implemented to facilitate the delivery of the LRC program. The Government and education authorities worked to try to eliminate stereotypes relating to disabilities when implementing LRC programs. Various pre- and in-service teacher training programs were developed, and expertise from special schools was called on to provide training, consultation and supervision for local inclusion programs.

    A model that combines whole-class teaching with tutoring outside the classroom and strategies of cooperative learning has been adopted and recommended to general education teachers. Differentiated teaching has sparked heated debates among special education practitioners since 1990, but it is now practiced nationwide.

    Despite the facts that LRC has been practiced for twenty years and the enrolment of children with disabilities is increasing each year, China is still far from its goal of education for all as mandated in law. Many children with specific conditions, such as mental retardation or multiple disabilities are not served by the school system because of the lack of personnel and resources; some children with conditions such as learning disabilities and autism, who are well served in western countries, were not recognized as having a disability by Chinese society until recently.

    High quality education for students with disabilities in general education classrooms has not yet been achieved. The teaching of these children has often fallen to teachers who have had limited prior interaction with individuals with disabilities, and most of them have not received any information or training regarding disabilities in their university or training school courses for teacher preparation. This lack of experience and expertise has affected the quality of instruction in general classrooms. Many students with disabilities have been ignored in the classroom and often do not receive instruction, because the teachers had neither enough time nor adequate knowledge to help them.

    Many children with disabilities are still excluded from public school education. The situation is commonly acknowledged to be much more severe in the rural areas of west China, as a result of large disparities in the ethnic, economic and geographic conditions between the rural and urban, and western and eastern regions of the country. Despite the initiatives described above, fundamental attitudes towards disability have not changed dramatically in China. Greater efforts are therefore expected from the Government and educators to ensure that generalised changes across the whole of the education system, alongside attitudinal changes in society, can bring greater educational opportunities to those with disabilities.

    Further information

    Professor Meng Deng is Associate Dean, College of Education, Central China Normal University, where he directs the University’s special education programs:

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