Towards a fully inclusive Chinese society

Towards a fully inclusive Chinese society

James Perez Morón

25 de julio de 2019                                       

May 19/19 has been marked as the National Day for helping the disabled in China  (hopefully in the very near future the title is updated from disabled to people with disAbilities1-PwD which is an inclusive & respectful language focused on the person instead of the disability, avoid exclusion and alleviate stereotypical terms), following the same route as the International Day of persons with disAbilities (December 3) promoted by the United Nations-UN which was originally called International Day of disabled Persons until 2007. It is observed since 1991 every third Sunday of May and this year is its 29th version with the theme “Self-strengthening, get rid of poverty, help the disabled, and share development fruits”. A real festival nationwide.

Prior to 1980, PwD in China were referred to as canfei (残废), which means “the handicapped and useless.” In China today, the term canji ren (残疾人) meaning “persons with disAbilities” is commonly used & widely accepted by society and references people with «visual, hearing, speech or physical disAbilities, intellectual disAbilities, psychiatric disAbilities, multiple disAbilities and/or other disAbilities (CDPF, 2008). Confucian ideology recognized there was a social hierarchy, in which disAbilities were regarded as having the lowest status that made people with a disability almost invisible in Chinese society (Yang, 2001). Also, traditional Chinese culture´s assumed a link between disability and previous wrongdoing, having a person with a disability was believed to bring shame and guilt to the family (Chiang & Hadadian, 2010).

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with DisAbilities of the UN (ratified by China in 2008) adopts a social model of disability & does not include an exact definition of disability. However, it states the following:

…that disability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. ……Persons with disAbilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

The International Labour Organization-ILO (ratified by China in 1988) provides another definition on disability which also requires an urgent update to a more inclusive language. Neither “suffer” nor “abnormalities” are accepted worldwide nowadays: A disabled person is defined as one who suffers from abnormalities of loss of a certain organ or function, psychologically or physiologically, or in anatomical structure and has lost wholly or in part the ability to perform an activity in the way considered normal.

Table 1. People with severe and profound disabilities (per 10,000 of the population)

Province Number Province Number
Beijing 1.85 Tianjing 1.6
Hebei 10.2 Shanxi 5.81
Neimongol 5.12 Liaoning 7.24
Jilin 5.2 Heilongjiang 6.6
Shanghai 1.76 Jiangsu 11.16
Zhejiang 7.8 Anhui 9.9
Fujian 5.8 Jiangxi 6.95
Shandong 13 Henan 13.12
Hubei 9.72 Hunan 10.5
Guangdong 10.4 Guangxi 6.7
Hainan 1.54 Sichuan 16.5
Guizhou 6.3 Yunnan 6.87
Xizang 0.85 Shannxi 6.7
Gansu 5.2 Qinghai 1.35
Ningxia 1.2 Xingjiang 3.54

Source: Author´s own elaboration based on Stratford & Ng (2000, pg. 6)

The World Health Organization-WHO (2011) states that more than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability, of whom nearly 200 million experience considerable difficulties in functioning, and growing. According to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF, 2012), approximately 83 million people in China were estimated to have disAbilities (see breakdown by provinces in table 1 & disability profile in table 2), the majority live in poverty (a number equal to the total population of Germany, Iran & Turkey), United States of America has 50 million people with a disability, Colombia 3 million. China concept on disability adopted the medical-social approach from the WHO’s «International Classification of Impairment, Disability and Handicap (IC-IDH), with this approach total of PwD may raise to 200 million people.

The Chinese National Health Commission (2019) informed in Beijing that there is a 护士缺口 (hùshì quēkǒu): Nurse Shortage, there aren´t enough nurses nationwide to assess the needs of the disabled and partly-disabled elderly, also more government funds are required. The same day they informed that Chinese population aged 60 or above had reached 249 million by the end of 2018, accounting for 17.9 percent of the total population, among whom 150 million suffer from chronic diseases, and 44 million are disabled or semi-disabled. China is also piloting an internet-based nursing service model to improve the efficiency of the use of limited nursing resources. (CDPF, 2019)

Table 2. Disability profile in China (2006)

Total number with a disability 82.96 million
As a percentage of the population 6.34%
Males as % of the disabled population 51.55% = 42.77 million
Females as a % of the disabled population 48.45% = 40.19 million
Disabled as a % of urban population 24.96% = 20.71 million
Disabled as a % of rural population 75.04% = 62.25 million
Age breakdown of the disabled population 0 – 14 yrs = 4.66% = 3.87 million
15 – 59 yrs = 42.10% = 34.93 million
> 60 = 53.24% = 44.16 million

Table 2. Source: Author´s own elaboration (as cited in ¨The Invisibles¨ … Disability in China in the 21st century, Campbell % Uren, 2011, p.1), based on the Second National Sampling Survey on Disability, China Statistical Yearbook, 2008.

The Chinese government has failed to remove work barriers to include PwD, so they are left to encounter more serious employment difficulties. There the rapid evolution of technology has allowed PwD to integrate into society; entrepreneurship and employment have contributed to the emerging sub-field of the digital economy of disability. For instance, Hubangwang is an entrepreneur that after several failures took advantage of the boom of technology and created a platform that assists disabled people to find and perform flexible jobs online, such as video transcription, text sorting, copywriting, network marketing, and online customer service (Lin et al, 2018). These types of online jobs are particularly significant for PwD in China and their families, these jobs have made PwD believe that they ‘have some value’ (youjiazhi) as a member in the family (Lin et al, 2018). 

Figure 1: Author´s own elaboration based on CDPF Facts and Progress on Disability in China 2008

As of the employment situation of PwD in China, figure 1 below offers an overview :

Social and labor inclusion of PwD is still a big challenge for the entire world and China is not an exception. President Xi Jinping emphasizes that PwD are “equal members of the global family” and that no one is left behind, the latest decades of Chinese laws & regulation are coherent with his view and it´s been seen progress on the living conditions / social status of PwD. However, the Chinese law´s compliance is lax and poorly enforced in some aspects like education and employment. China has to work on a stronger social security system and vocation training as well.

China´s come a long way and it needs to continue working towards a full inclusion of their PwD. Their real challenge is related to change the majority of the society´s point of view towards PwD which arises when it refers to the acceptance and understanding of the capabilities of PwD. 83 million in China is a significant amount of talent that has to be operating for their own well-being, their families´ and the society´s. It´ll take some time to adjust Chinese cultural traditions, beliefs,  and stereotypes and hopefully, they will reach it sooner than later.

Seeing President Xi Jinping shaking hands so enthusiastic and sharing at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing commending role models with disAbilities and people who have made outstanding contributions in helping the PwD in the last few days, is the kind of powerful message that the Chinese society needs to continue observing to finally realize that everybody is equal, that everybody can, that everybody deserves the same opportunities and  that everybody has value (youjiazhi.).Time is now & PwD are more visible than ever.

PD: Avoid passive, victim words. Use language that respects PwD as active individuals with control over their own lives.


Campbell, A. & Uren, M. (2011). ‘The invisibles’…disability in china in the 21st century. International journal of special education vol 26 no1 2011

Chiang, L. H., & Hadadian, A. (2010). Raising children with disAbilities in China: The need for early interventions. International Journal of Special Education, 25(2), 113-118.

China Disabled Persons’ Federation. (2008a). Law of the People’s Republic of China on the protection of disabled persons. Retrieved from lawsdoc/content/2008-04/10/content_84883.htm

Law on the Protection of Persons with DisAbilities, Article 2, China Disabled Person’s Federation, April 10, 2008, at

Lin, Z., Zhang, Z., & Yang, L. (2018). Self as enterprise: digital disability practices of entrepreneurship and employment in the wave of “Internet + disability” in China. Information, Communication & Society, 1–16. doi:10.1080/1369118x.2018.1518470

Stratford, B., & Ng, H. (2000). People with DisAbilities in China: Changing outlook— new solutions— growing problems. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 47(1), 7–14. Doi:10.1080/103491200116093

Xi Jinping  (2017). High-Level Intergovernmental Meeting on the Midpoint Review of the Asian and Pacific Decade of Persons with DisAbilities 2013-22

Yang, J. (2001). The Positive and Negative Impact of Traditional Culture on Disability Policies in China. Retrieved 30 March 2010 from

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