A Positive Approach Helps Mentally Handicapped

Zheng Wenjuan leads us up a shabby stairwell; from above comes the tuneless and non-committal sound of school music classes the world over. Dirty, high windows filter the light to relieve the glare outside, where the empty courtyard of China's only occupational training school for the mentally disabled is baking in an unseasonable May sun.

The buildings around the yard are a strange collection, tarted up in garish yellow and decorated with turrets like some fairy-castle theme park, with incongruous interiors of dusty chandeliers and disused reception areas. Some have been converted into dormitories, others serve as classrooms. Several are yet to find a purpose.

Through the door at the end of the landing, we are a minor sensation. A brief silence, then the class of seven boys and two girls greets us with a chorus of: "Ke ren hao.” (“How do you do.”) Volunteer teacher Wu Ling, a 34-year-old police force singer, calls their attention back to the piano where she sits, testing the kids to see if they can distinguish high notes from low.

We sit at the back of the class, where Zhang, a 23-year-old accountant who also helps run the school's autistic center, quietly points out who's who. Our presence does not aid concentration. Some sneak surreptitious glances, but 12-year-old Wang Shichang doesn't bother; he just twists around in his chair and gives us a grin.

Bigger than the others and dressed entirely in black, 15-year-old Zhang Bo sits apart and doesn't participate in the singing exercises. He has apparently taken it upon himself to act as monitor. He gestures at the others when they turn around to stare at us; when he's satisfied they're behaving, he turns around to stare himself.

When we leave, the chorus of "Zai jian" (Good-bye) seems a lot more enthusiastic than the welcome.

One door closes ...

School founder and principal Wang Lijuan, 51, is a remarkable package of energy and positive thinking. She used to be a successful Chinese language teacher, and spent several years at universities in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Bangkok between 1990 and 1997. That year, she was planning to go to Switzerland, when everything suddenly changed.

"I went to the Beijing Handicapped Association on other business," she said. "I saw many deaf, mute and otherwise handicapped children, who were all together in one classroom. It wasn't working. When I opened the door to that classroom, I opened the door to another world, another life."

One of Wang's current students joins us, a hyperactive fellow named Huang Hao. He demands to know our identity, then turns to the subject evidently closest to his heart -- Hong Kong singer Xu Xiaofeng.

But Huang brushes aside my ignorance. He performs a Xu Xiaofeng number, clapping the beat as he sings, and seems ready to discuss his idol for the rest of the afternoon. Reluctantly, he eventually accepts that this is not why we're here.

China's policy for handicapped children is nine years’ education to the age of 16. After that - nothing. Wang says her initial purpose was to provide occupational training for mentally handicapped children who had already graduated from special schools. Training for younger children followed, as did a center for autistic children and a kindergarten. She says this is the only such school in China, and the only one that accepts people older than 16.

"I started the school with just me and one retired head of a special school. A reporter from Beijing Evening News did a full-page story on us, and after that teachers started to contact me. We had twelve students at the beginning, and seven teachers. At the start, we had no textbooks, no staff, no school. We compiled the textbooks ourselves."

"In the first year, we had eleven graduates, eight of whom found jobs. One's a chef, another is a truck driver on the Beijing-Shijiazhuang route. I'm very worried about him, but he says: 'Don't worry, I'm a good driver--come and join me'," says Wang, laughing: "But I dare not.”

Wang has invested about one million yuan (US$120,000), about half of which came from her son, who works in the USA. "We started in a rented building in Shijingshan in 1998, then moved to an old hotel about two kilometers from where we are now. I spent 200,000 yuan ($24,000) on refurbishment there, but then the owner raised the rent from 200,000 yuan to 300,000 ($36,000). We had to leave. I cried outside the building, but one of the workers said: ‘Don't cry. I know the manager of a place whose company went bankrupt, and he has a kind heart’.”

He did, too. The school's current premises were made available rent-free, although the local village authorities tried to charge Wang for use of the land. She fought back, citing a law that says charities - the school has charitable status - need pay no land taxes. "The village doesn't now dare ask for money," says Wang. "Now I'm very tired. I practically live in the school." She is also suing the landlord of the school's former premises for the 200,000 yuan spent on refurbishment.

Nothing wasted

Wang's commitment to her students consumes her. She has mortgaged her Asian Games Village apartment to register a company that she hopes will enhance her financial capacity.

I want to open a copying and typing center [the school has 15 computers donated by the Beijing Adult Education Committee], a carwash next to the school, and a restaurant - all to provide more opportunities for my students. I need money to refurbish the buildings, and students will get experience and prove they can work before they go back home. Most remarkable of all is Wang's plan for a waste-disposal factory. She has already traveled to Daqing for talks with the Daqing Meishang High Bio-Technology Environment Processing Co. Ltd, and says she plans to apply for a World Bank loan for the 90 million yuan (US$10.8 million) needed to build the plant, which will process waste into organic fertilizer. She has even identified the land for the factory site in south-west Beijing. If it works, it will be a source of funding for further developments at the school, and a source of jobs for graduates.

“My aim is to convert deserted people, deserted land and garbage into treasure. I will try every way to make my students survive.”

(Beijing This Month, 08/03/2001)

In This Series

85 Percent of the Disabled in Beijing Have Jobs

More Handicapped Children Go to School

More Social Opportunities Urged for the Disabled

Deng Pufang on Situation of Handicapped Chinese



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