New vision for university education?

Updated: 2014-05-22 07:43

By Yang Yao (China Daily)

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New vision for university education?

The blind and visually impaired will be allowed to take China's university entrance exam for the first time this year, but some critics say the move is little more than window dressing, as Yang Yao reports.

As a boy, Li Jinsheng dreamed of becoming a lawyer. However, his family was poor, so he left school at age 18 without taking the gaokao, China's national university entrance exam, and started working to support his parents.

His childhood dream refused to fade though, so, in addition to providing for his family, Li squirreled away what little cash he could save in the hope of finally achieving his ambition. However, by 1994, when he'd amassed enough money to think about entering higher education, his hopes were crushed after an accident resulted in the gradual deterioration, and then complete loss, of the sight in both eyes. Like many blind people in China, Li's access to university was blocked by his disability, so the ex-farmer from Queshan county, Zhumadian city in Henan province had no alternative but to earn a living as a "blind masseur".

Now, the 46-year-old, who claims to have an eidetic, or photographic, memory, has been granted fresh hope. On March 28, the Ministry of Education announced officially that this year, for the first time, the blind and visually impaired will be allowed to take the gaokao, and will be provided with the necessary assistance and tools to enable them to do so.

"It is a little beam of hope after the long years of struggle," Li said. "Although I have the ability - and the right, according to the law - to take the exam and study law at a university, I've never been given the chance. I know that in other countries many blind people become lawyers. We don't have that environment yet, but I will fight for it," he said.

Although he realizes that his advanced age means the chances of him becoming a fully practicing lawyer are very slim, Li is determined to push for his cause to publicize the plight of the blind and visually impaired.

Special skills for special cases

Visual impairment changes the way children obtain information about the world around them and limits opportunities to learn via the visual elements in the school curriculum and elsewhere. This means that, in addition to regular classroom studies, blind or visually impaired children need to embrace specialized skills, said Han Yao, who works for an NGO called Yi Xin that promotes disabled people's rights, teaching children with visual impairments.

"The special skills they must learn include the proficient use of technology and computers, reading and writing in Braille, reading large print, and the use of optical devices. They must also undergo training in the optimum use of their available vision, how to explore career preferences, and how to participate in work experience programs using non-visual methods," she said.

"They should also be trained to use specific orientation and mobility techniques to learn about social interaction and independent living skills," she added.

However, according to Li Weihong, vice-president of China Blind People's Association, in special education schools, blind and visually impaired students have little contact with the school curriculum, while in regular schools where a system of inclusive education is used, a lack of capable teachers means they don't receive good, specialized and skilled training.

"There is a severe shortage of qualified teachers for visually impaired students, which restricts access to the specialized skills these children need," Li said.

The blind and visually impaired are well suited to a number of occupations, such as the law, social work and teaching. They shouldn't be restricted to "traditional" work, such as masseurs, Li said, pointing out that there are at least 4,000 visually impaired lawyers in the United States.

"There are 147 occupations in US suited to the blind and visually impaired. In Germany, the government provides 49 different types of vocational training for visually challenged people," he added.

According to Li, most countries provide all the equipment and training required so the blind and visually impaired can take exams, such as papers in Braille, large print, electronic aids and audio guides.

"This year, the association proposed to the Ministry of Education that we could help translate the gaokao exam papers into Braille," he said.

By Yang Yao

The struggle

Li's struggle began 14 years ago. After a long period of self-study, he spent 15 months requesting to be allowed to take a vocational degree to become a qualified masseur. Although his petitions were originally submitted to the education authority in Zhumadian, the papers were sent to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, and then forwarded to the Ministry of Education in Beijing before he was granted official approval.

Following graduation, Li began work, but his thoughts kept returning to the gaokao and he began to petition for the right to take it. In September, Li was notified that he would be allowed to take the exam this year. He was advised that the exam papers would be printed in Braille, the script for the blind, but he was dissatisfied because his knowledge of Braille is extremely poor. He applied to use audio papers to take the exam, which will be held between June 7 and 9, but so far to no avail.

Having studied the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons, Li knows that Article 18 states, "The State shall guarantee the right of disabled persons to education". He feels he isn't being given a fair crack of the whip.

"I can't accept the way this change is being implemented, so I need to fight for my rights. The notice said the authorities will provide the most convenient way of taking the exam, and so they should! If they refuse to give me audio papers, I will continue to petition. Each paper is two-hours in length, but I will also need an extra hour for each one, which I think is reasonable."

No smooth path

There are about 85 million disabled people in China. Of them, more than 13 million are blind or visually impaired, accounting for 18 percent of the global blind population.

The latest data from the China Disabled Persons' Federation show that 28 percent of school-aged children with disabilities in China still cannot enroll at school. The federation's report, released in March, said that at the end of last year, 84,000 disabled children - 5,000 with visual impairments - remained outside the State education system. Children with special needs face greater difficulty in accessing education compared with their able-bodied counterparts, who have an enrolment rate of 99.85.

While experts see the policy change as a welcome move, they said it won't guarantee a smooth path to higher education.

"Although the blind are now allowed to take the exam, university admission still remains elusive," said Fu Gaoshan, the founder of the One Plus One Disabled Persons' Cultural Development Center, an organization in Beijing that fights for the rights of disabled people.

Fu, whose vision is so bad that he can barely distinguish the blurred outlines of objects, said universities do not normally admit blind people because they don't have the necessary facilities, especially textbooks in Braille, and are unable to offer career guidance for blind or visually impaired students because of discrimination in the workplace.

"Even though admission is now open to the blind and visually impaired, very few will actually take the exam because they, and disabled people as a whole, have received a much lower level of education in the State system," Fu said.

"Of course it seems progressive and exciting, but when one examines the change more closely, it just looks like window dressing," he added.

In fact, according to the Yirenping Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of social justice, only two blind or visually impaired students will take the gaokao this year - Li and another student who preferred not to be named.

Minor majors

Although opportunities for the blind and visually impaired to access higher education are extremely limited in China, despite moves to widen the options, three universities have been willing to admit disabled students for some time. One of them, Changchun University in Jilin province, first accepted blind students in 1987, but like the other schools, the only majors it offered were massage techniques and music. More than three decades later, the situation hasn't changed.

Han Yao, a blind woman from Shenyang in Northeast China's Liaoning province, who attended Changchun University in 2004 to study massage techniques, said that most of her fellow graduates became masseurs, a skill that doesn't require a degree. According to Han, many of her peers showed promise in other disciplines, but were unable to exploit their gifts. "It's such a waste of talent," she said.

In Han's experience, the Chinese education system reflects society and excludes disabled people from the mainstream. "We lag behind from the very start," she said.

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