"We are no different from people with disabilities. We are among them; they are among us," Chen Yunying, smartly clad in a red-and-black suit, said zealously in a conference room during an interview with China.org.cn.
Chen Yunying, widely recognized as the founding mother of China's special education, poses for photos during an interview with China.org.cn on March 9, 2012. [He Shan/China.org.cn]
During the annual session of the National People's Congress, Dr. Chen, widely recognized as the founding mother of China's special education, took every opportunity to call for more attention to special education initiatives and more loving care for people with disabilities.
Dr. Chen was the first person in China to advocate moving students with disabilities to mainstream classes rather than sending them to schools that have specific programs for special education.
She was also the first Chinese completing overseas study with a doctoral degree in special education and coming back to serve her motherland.
Returning to China in 1988, Dr. Chen started applying her love to her special education career with developmentally disabled children.
"When I came back, special education was a very new discipline in China," she recalled. "At that time, no universities here offered master's degree in special education.''
Upon coming back, she has made nine proposals for special education reform which seemed too looking-forward at that time, but were all accepted by the Ministry of Education except for one. For her, it was a rare achievement for a country still devoid of a refined special education system.
She soon began immersing herself in trailblazing work—an experimental program that pushed to move disabled children to regular class settings instead of schools tailored exclusively to them.
The program could provide appropriate services for disabled students without isolating them from their normal peers and in doing so, it will take only a few years to achieve the goal of giving disabled students access to education, otherwise, it would take about three hundred years by merely counting on special education institutions.
But such regular schools need to change their culture before allowing special education students to benefit from regular schooling.
"In a regular-students-oriented school, principal won't care much about those students with disabilities, because they belong to a minority group," she said.
This is true, and on top of this quandary and among other experts in this realm, there been skimpy spending on special education.
She found that the situation is more severe in the rural areas. China has 83 million handicapped people, among which 75 percent dwell in the rural areas, according to the Second China National Sample Survey on Disability carried out in 2006.
With a less booming economy, China's countryside has trailed cities in providing people with disabilities with access to proper special education. Special education facilities are virtually out of reach in rural areas.
Even in the cities, the quality of special education is far from satisfactory, and the problem is compounded by a lack of special education specialists.
"Schools for special education are there, but are not well equipped," she said.
To produce more specialists in this regard, Dr. Chen suggested that on one hand, disciplines of special education need to be popularized in the universities; on the other hand, practices are needed to better prepare those graduates specializing in this field for their future job."
Dr. Chen stressed the importance of a proper education for people with disabilities. "Without receiving education, people with disabilities are unlikely to arrive at a job and a secondary disability may become an issue."
She pointed that the illiteracy rate of people with disabilities is almost twice that of the able-bodied people and chances are people with disabilities are also poor.
She has been drumming up for support in her proposed life-long education system for people with disabilities, which is complete with preschool education, compulsory education and vocational education.
By the end of 2010, China had 1,706 special education institutions serving people with disabilities, with 425,613 students and 49,249 faculty members. In the eyes of Dr. Chen, those figures were far from enough to meet the needs of a growing group of students with disabilities.
When it came to the relationship between people with disabilities and the community, she said that China's integration of people with disabilities to the community depends on how civil and tolerant the community is.
"Many people think that they should make their lives better first and then help people with disabilities" she said. "The thought is problematic."
She explains her philosophy by saying "When we are protecting the rights of people with disabilities, we are actually protecting ourselves, because everyone will ail and become unhealthy when they grow old."
She believed every bit of progress achieved in making the community more harmonious and tolerant for people with disabilities benefits normal people as well.
"I hope that for government officials, they could approve good policies for people with disabilities, for wealthy people, they could donate to people with disabilities, and for the average people, they could spend one hour each month taking care of people with disabilities," She said. "This is my dream."