The Gap: Social and Institutional Problems for Disability in China

By Jack Zhou

The United Nations passed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, with China as one of its earliest signatories. This was an addition to what seemed like a great track-record for disability protection by the Chinese government. On paper, China has introduced extensive legal protections for the civil rights of disabled persons. The Laws on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities was passed in 1990, guaranteeing a range of rights including equal participation in work and education.1 These laws are amongst the best and most inclusive in the world, but there is still a significant gap in their implementation. The lived experience of people with disabilities remain challenging.

While there is an employment quota which requires that 1.5 of a company’s workforce be made up of disabled persons, efforts to fully integrate disabled workers have been poor. Workplace discrimination, especially at the interview stage, is an experience shared by many. While the burgeoning e-commerce industry has provided opportunities to work at home, unemployment is still generally higher.2

The laws have also created guidelines for disabled students taking China’s national university admission exam. Disabled students are required to have adequate special considerations, but support for these students in the classroom is lacking.3 Often their disability is not accounted for by teachers and organisers.  Some of the most vulnerable sections of Chinese society are disabled children. The implementation of the rights of disabled children is closely related to economic security for their families.4 The key issue is the cost of medical care, when .5 low median wages already make living expenses difficult. Coupled with the difficulties adjusting to school and social settings, disabled children live without adequate protection despite the legal framework. A disabled child’s right to life may be precarious: parents consider abandoning the child if the prospect of sustaining them seems unfeasible.6 In rural areas, the impact of poverty is significantly worse.

Even though since the 2000s rapid reforms to social welfare have emerged in both urban and rural sectors, ‘few policies in China are specifically targeted at the disabled population’.7 There is also a stronger correlation between poverty and disability. Disabled people face additional difficulties finding employment, and though their households have a higher chance of receiving social welfare, it is generally not enough to offset the costs of medical or care expenses.8

The primary organisation addressing the rights and status of disabled people is the China Disabled Person’s Federation. Its founder, Deng Pufang, was caught amongst the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In 1968, he was thrown off a building by the Red Guards, and refused admission into the emergency room, leaving him with paraplegia. The experience led him to devote his life to the advocacy and protection of other disabled people.

Experiences of disabled people during the Cultural Revolution were particularly devastating. On the Federation’s webpage, the entry for this period is almost blank except for ‘work for disabled people had come to a standstill during this period.’ Beginning as small clubs for disabled youths scattered throughout China, it grew to an organisation absorbed into the larger bureaucracy of the Chinese government.9 However, the Federation is not an actual government body: it faces administrative limitations and the number of disabled members have been dropping since the 1990s. 

The lack of visibility in public life and the media contributes to the marginalisation of disabled people, much of which is due to physical barriers and lack of accessibility The institutional perceptions of disabled people exacerbates this lack of visibility. The government media often portrays disabled people as either objects of pity, or examples of inspiration. There is a greater push by the disabled community to be portrayed accurately, living and working in the broader Chinese society.

Yet things are gradually improving: the 2018 report from the China Disabled Persons’ Federation noted that over 10 million disabled people had access to basic health services, across physical, speech and intellectual disabilities.10 While progress is certainly being made, there are still chronic issues and obstacles. Institutional and social change has been, on the whole, slow and wanting; the struggle for life, for visibility and for protection continues for the millions of disabled Chinese people living today. 


1.  “Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities,” Resources, China Disabled Persons Federation, accessed 30 April 2019,

2.  James Palmer, “What Life is Like for Disabled People in China?”, Aeon, accessed 30 April 2019,

3.  “China: New Rules for Students with Disabilities Inadequate,” News, Human Rights Watch, accessed 1 May 2019,

4.  Xiaoyuan Shang and Karen R. Fisher, Disability Policy in China: Child and family experiences (2016: Albingdon, Routledge), 101.

5.  Ibid., 78-79.

6.  Ibid., 53.  

7.  Prashant Loyalka et al., ‘The Cost of Disability in China.’ Demography 51, no. 1 (February 14): 112.

8.  Ibid., 99.

9.  See Matthew Kohrman, Bodies of Difference: Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) for an extensive treatment of the formation process of the CDPF. 

10.  “2018年残疾人事业发展统计公报[残联发(2019)18号] (2018 Disabled Persons Initiative Development Public Report),” Resources, China Disabled Persons Federation, accessed 30 April 2019,

Jack is an Arts/Law student with an enormous passion for history, literature and politics. His main interests are pre-modern Asia and Europe. An ardent believer that we can learn from history, he has tried to make it the subject of deeper conversation. 



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