Our societies consist of different social groups, each with its unique characteristics. However, it can be observed that in any society there are certain groups whose engagement with their country’s political, economic and social life is more likely to be hindered by numerous barriers. In the context of China, people with disabilities are one of those groups.


“Progress” has long been a keyword within China’s national development strategies, and the advancement of a nation demands a higher level of social inclusion, which is an enabler for people to fully participate in their community and society, regardless of their situation, background and identity. Achieving a higher level of inclusion necessitates joint efforts by the government, the public and civil society. A European Union-sponsored webinar with the purpose of promoting the notion of social inclusion among Chinese NGOs was held on the 28th of August, co-hosted by Oxfam Hong Kong and China Development Brief. The webinar focused on how people with disabilities can be better facilitated to take part in society. The speaker was Ms. Li Hui, a senior social worker with eight years of experience at the Work Accident Rehabilitation Centre (工伤康复中心) in Guangdong Province.


After starting off the webinar with the question “what do you call people with disabilities?”, Li Hui got the participants to look into their behaviour and come to the realisation that in many circumstances, people without disabilities actually view those with disabilities as “abnormal”. She pointed out that this is a misconception. Obtaining an appropriate understanding of disabilities should begin with a comprehensive definition, and Li Hui showed the participants that according to the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons, “disabilities” are defined mainly from a medical perspective.


However, socially speaking, the definition of disabilities has already gone through a series of evolutions. Prior to 1984, people with disabilities in China were most commonly called “Can Fei (残废)”, which literally means disabled and wasted. They were likely to be prevented by their relatives from showing themselves in public spaces, and regarded as a burden by their families. Later on, disabilities were commonly defined with medical terms like “Can Ji (残疾)”, which means disabled and diseased. Disabilities were considered to be curable through medical treatment and rehabilitation, and the definition also stressed that people with disabilities should be positive and strong so they could try to reach the standard of being “normal people” within society. In the present, disabilities are called “Can Zhang (残障)”, meaning disabled and handicapped. This way of defining disabilities implies that loss and barriers to social inclusion are caused by lack of support from social systems. Reducing the barriers within social systems, increasing accessibility in public infrastructure and removing prejudices towards disabled people are of great help to allow those with disabilities to participate equally in the society.


Li Hui’s work pays attention to people who became disabled because of injuries from accidents at work. Used to being ordinary members of society, people with disabilities caused by injuries will inevitably experience a shift in their identity. Li Hui explained that in such cases initially people experience shock, but at this stage they only think they are injured and will recover again in the future. Later they gradually come to realise that the injury is severe and has caused many changes in their life, including in their capabilities and sometimes even appearance. They may be tempted to think of themselves as “incomplete”, because many of them have lost a part of their body or some physical capability. When they start to accept the reality of their disabilities, they focus on the doctors’ diagnoses and use them to re-define themselves. “At this stage, people’s identity can be totally based on their injuries, and when they communicate with other people with disabilities they tend to refer to themselves using medical terms for their injuries,” Li Hui said. “I often wonder what a hard process they must have gone through! As a person without a disability, I cannot fully understand it. But as a social worker who serves people with disabilities caused by accidents at work, it is important to learn this process and try to think in their shoes.”


But re-identifying or re-defining themselves as disabled is not the end of the story. What comes after is all kinds of labels and stigma attached to being “disabled”, and that is what makes Li Hui most concerned. “The stigma towards disabled people has severely affected many who were not born with disabilities, and it is something that we need to frequently confront in our daily work.” Discrimination towards people with disabilities has already been addressed by institutions such as the UN through international agreements or treaties, but regulations cannot fundamentally abolish discrimination. Li Hui believes that to a large extent, perceptions of people with disabilities are socially and culturally-framed misunderstandings. When they are accompanied by insufficient public infrastructure, these misunderstandings will undoubtedly cause not only inconvenience and mental suffering for the disabled, but also existing discriminatory thoughts to become stronger. Li Hui listed a few examples from real life: “parents whose children are disabled would complain to us that every time they take them out to the street, people would stare at them. Some of our clients told us that when they went to the bank, where counters are very high, they suggested to the staff that the bank should have counters that are friendly to people with disabilities, but most of the time they would be turned down, which is very upsetting.”


As Li Hui explains, “all kinds of standards exist to help people to fit in to society, yet many of them are set up without much consideration for the needs of people with disabilities. People whose disabilities are caused by accidents at work have already gone through very traumatic experiences, and now the alleged “standards” of the society are something that they find nearly impossible to reach, and stop them from participating in society. Moreover the public, and even their families and friends, would use those standards to judge them, because they have failed to reach them and therefore are different from most of us. People close to the disabled will also suffer from these judgements. This is unfair.”


Based on her work experience serving people with disabilities, Li Hui actively appealed for equal treatment of the disabled. “They are different from us,” Li Hui said, “but we are in fact all different from each other. People with disabilities hope that when people look at them what they see is not merely their disability, but also things like their personalities, achievements and hobbies. When people ask me ‘how should I treat people with disabilities? What should I do?’ I always say “treat them the way you want to be treated and do what you hope other people would do for you”. They want a decent life just as much as you and me.”


In practice, the path towards including individuals with disabilities in society is challenging, because it is intertwined with several factors. Li Hui has identified three prominent factors that have produced difficulties for disabled people to engage and re-engage with the wider society.


The social factor sets the external environment in which individuals with disabilities live, and so far the environment is not friendly enough in China. For example, most of the infrastructure for transportation, work places, restaurants and schools is only designed for citizens without disabilities, and this has directly prevented people with disabilities from leaving the home and being present in these public spaces. The existing welfare system for people with disabilities also has many issues. The fundamental problem is that the main focus of the system is on “disabilities” instead of “people”. Government policies acknowledge that people with disabilities need support, but do not recognise that being disabled does not mean losing all ability to participate and contribute to society. Current policies provide the disabled with limited financial support and channels to received education and search for employment opportunities, and this has in many ways denied these people the right to be an average member of society.


The individual and cultural factors are closely connected, and in many situations they reinforce each other. Li Hui revealed that people with disabilities commonly perceive themselves as a “lower class” of citizens with no or very limited power, rights, dignity and social value, and they do not have a sense of belonging to most, if not all, areas of society. These are things that individuals need to overcome in order to participate in society, said Li Hui, but the root of these perceptions and feelings are culture-related. If the public frequently view disabled individuals as “useless”, “inferior”, “negligible”, “abnormal” and “cursed”, these impressions will inevitably penetrate into the mind of people with disabilities and trigger these distorted perceptions in them.


Much work needs to be done by the government, public and civil society sector. As a social worker Li Hui feels that in practice, in order to help people with disabilities achieve social inclusion it is necessary to pay extra attention to raising individuals’ awareness of rights and social participation, introducing them to their social and legal responsibilities as a citizen of the nation, facilitating them to build close relationships with other people with and without disabilities and helping them to embrace a sense of belonging to groups, communities and the society.


Meanwhile, she also emphasised that the service has to be holistic and people and community-centred. Social workers should have the intention to focus on the patients’ physical, mental, social and spiritual needs, supporting people with disabilities as well as their families. Not only do workers help people with their treatment and rehabilitation, they also equip them to be included in the society with necessary skills and a positive mindset.

“People with disabilities need to show up and not hide anymore”, Li Hui maintains. “They have to let their needs be heard and known, and only then more changes in the environment, culture and entire society can occur. The civil society sector should be there to promote change from below.”

Li Hui shared a couple of cases she encountered in her work with the audience, to show the progress towards social inclusion made by both social workers and the disabled. Patients are offered different channels and encouraged to first engage with people who are in the same situation as them, and both online and face-to-face groups have been established. Thanks to Li Hui and her colleagues’ efforts, activities such as armchair marathons have managed to happen regularly. Moreover, social workers have also been actively engaging with government officials and workers in public transportation to advocate for a friendlier environment that accelerates the process of social inclusion, for example setting up facilities that enable people with disabilities to access underground services.

One inspiring point in her sharing comes from disabled individuals’ reactions to the help they received from social workers. Many of them have successfully engaged with different sectors, landed job offers and built up new relationships after receiving treatment and training workshops, and a good number have chosen to commit themselves to the same work that Li Hui is doing, helping other people with disabilities to regain their self-esteem and be involved in society. This phenomenon has hugely encouraged Li Hui and her colleagues to continue their mission. “We know about two or three couples who met each other in the rehabilitation centre and later got married. Now they are all working on programmes that aim to facilitate the social inclusion of people with disabilities and stand up for change. Their stories and journeys have been widely spread in their circles, and have given people a lot of hope for their future.”

Li Hui ended this informative and inspiring webinar by raising a few questions to reflect on how different actors within society can assist with social inclusion under the existing social, welfare and cultural systems. How do social workers make an impact on the life of people with disabilities by using their professional knowledge and skills? How do institutions and civil society organisations set their goals and promote their services to people in need? How can the society assemble resources and redistribute them to foster social equality? “Our country has already realised the need of people with disabilities to participate in society, and relevant laws and regulations have been passed. Things are moving towards a brighter future, but changes are happening slowly. We still have a long way to go, but we move ahead with good hope.”