Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Observing Inclusion in the U.S., City by City

Well Zhao stands before the Capitol building and cherry trees in D.C.
Well Zhao stands before the Capitol building and cherry trees in D.C.

To better serve disabled students in China, visiting professional Well Zhao toured organizations working towards disability inclusion across the U.S.

I feel so lucky to have had the chance to join the five-week International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Along the official route, which included Washington D.C., Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Charlotte, and Louisville, I visited several organizations and institutions dedicated to empowering people with disabilities to participate in many aspects of mainstream society.

Barriers to Inclusion in China

The situation is vastly different in China, as there are very few organizations established to assist persons with disabilities or their families. To use an example from my own experience, after I got in a car accident at 5 years old and had to spend two tough years in the hospital, I remember my parents unceasingly asking for help from society. But their efforts were in vain as nobody was able to provide support during this time. Now, when I watch TV or read the newspaper, some ads of parents asking for help for their disabled son or daughter immediately grab my attention. I understand how many pressures the families facing a disability have in China.

In China, the situation that we still find today for many students with severe disabilities is that they often have to stay at home and lose the opportunity to study with their peers. 

Recently, with the decline in the population of youth in China, many schools have had to combine or close down. As a result, two villages share one primary school; a county retains a sole high school. The students with severe disabilities have to move a long way to go to school. It’s very difficult for them because their families don’t have cars and the schools are not accessible for them.

Another issue facing students with disabilities in China is achieving independence. During a trip to a special school for students with hearing, speech, and vision impairments in Guangxi, one of the poorer provinces in China, I was told by a volunteer there that students with disabilities have to remain in the school every day. The teachers were afraid of the potential dangers of letting volunteers take the students out of school, so students at this boarding school must ask their teachers to bring them what they need, such as shampoo and other daily necessities, instead of being able to shop for themselves.

Possibilities for Change

In Charlotte, North Carolina, I observed something quite different from what I saw at the school in Guangxi. A volunteer with the International House of Metrolina invited me to join an outdoor activity with students with cognitive disabilities from East Mecklenburg High School, a public high school for more than 2000 students. I met the students at the entrance to a superstore where the school organizes buses and teachers to take the students twice a week. They not only came for fun, but also were required to complete a task such as comparing prices of goods. An assistant of a special education teacher also told me about a very successful sports competition which they recently held for the students with disabilities at East Mecklenburg High School in which a local NBA basketball player volunteered.

One of my goals in visiting the U.S. was to broaden my understanding of inclusive education, which is the standard in American education today. Public schools must accept students with all types of disabilities. They provide not only accessible facilities, but also disability-related aids supported by federal and local governments. For instance, students with hearing impairments study with other students in the same classroom and are accommodated with a sign language interpreter who will sit near them.

I saw an example of this during my visit to California’s Bridge School, which is a school for students of all ages with significant cerebral palsy. The school shares part of the same campus with an elementary school, so in this way, the two schools are able to work together on many activities during the school day.

At a reception for all of the international visitors in Kansas City, Missouri, I met a woman who is studying for her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Kansas. When I praised the success of the American special education system, she said her work was to persuade some new immigrants to the U.S. to allow their children with disabilities to go to school. She explained that often times new immigrant families move very frequently to follow work opportunities, but as a result, they do not consider how to best provide for their disabled children’s education. I could see how the American education system is still working on some of these difficult issues related to inclusive education.

During my visit to Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to visit the College of Professional Studies and Outreach (CPSO). CPSO had great programs and resources for people with disabilities. In one program, they visit many areas in the U.S. and provide help for people with disabilities and their families during their vacations. They also teach the families how to take care of their disabled relatives. Another CPSO program is offering an intensive 1-week leadership training in Theater Arts for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People of Color. The focus is on three distinct areas: (1) History of Deaf theater and theater arts by people of color, (2) Actors movements, and (3) Play production.

Beyond Education: Leadership and Recreation for All

After the program, I visited several other cities with American friends whom I got to know through my work in China. One such organization I visited was Mobility International USA (MIUSA) in Eugene, Oregon, where some colleagues were busy preparing for an upcoming program. MIUSA is an organization which provides information to support students with disabilities to study abroad. Its Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) is a training camp that brings together new and emerging grassroots women leaders with disabilities from around the world to build skills, exchange experiences and strategies, create new visions, and strengthen international networks of support. Through a series of intensive workshops, women move forward in their personal and professional roles as disabled world leaders.

The last organization I visited on my trip was Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program (BORP) in Berkeley, California one weekend morning. At BORP’s drop-in center for adaptive cycling, I met some of the volunteers who helped to fix and modify the bikes. They warmly talked with me and fitted me for a handcycle. It was my first time to ride this wonderful adaptive bicycle, and I began to wonder if local bike shops in Guangzhou, China could help to make these adaptive bikes. This type of technology would enable persons with various disabilities to travel easily in the city, especially along an area of the city which has accessible bike paths beside Guangzhou’s Pearl River. When I talked with BORP about my intention of outreach for adaptive cycling in China, they said they would like to donate some handcycles, yet we were limited by the expensive shipping fees.

When I went to the University of California-Berkeley, there were wheelchair basketball competitions at its recreation center. At least 40 participants, most being amateurs, enjoyed playing. The organizer of the event was a student and volunteered to teach other students wheelchair basketball skills every week. She told me that all the wheelchairs were provided by BORP, and the activity was held as a fundraiser.

I was touched by the harmonious scene that I saw taking place there, and I couldn’t stop asking myself “Could I take this activity to China?” Thanks to Ben Strong, a director at Volunteers in Asia who formerly volunteered in China, we now have adaptive bikes that were purchased through a bike-a-thon fundraiser he did!

Continuing Onward

As the China Disabled Persons’ Federation and the field of social work develop in China, the situation is becoming better. Perhaps my collaborations with MIUSA, BORP, Volunteers in Asia and support through programs like the U.S. Department of States’ Sports United programs could make it possible to bring Americans for recreational events like this in China, or bring our GETCH students to the U.S. to experience it too. It would continue my exciting journey onward.

Well Zhao is the vice president of Guangzhou English Training Center for the Handicapped (GETCH), a non-profit, non-governmental school that provides tuition-free associate’s degrees and English training for physically disabled students in China. As an amputee who uses a prosthetic and a former GETCH student himself, Well is passionate about education access in China.

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