China Begins to Stamp Out Stigma Linked to Learning Disabilities

China Begins to Stamp Out Stigma Linked to Learning Disabilities

By Ben Halder


Because the future of millions of struggling Chinese children depends on this shift.

By Ben Halder

It was eight months into the school year in 2013, and frustration was turning into an overwhelming sense of inevitability for Jane*, a special educational needs (SEN) teacher at an international school in Beijing, after another fruitless attempt to contact the parents of one of her pupils. Over the previous six months, she had made six calls and sent two dozen emails, trying to reach the parents of a 14-year-old Chinese student.

The student needed to take the SEN assessment before an upcoming exam or she wouldn’t receive any special dispensation during testing. But without parental consent, Jane’s hands were tied. It was one of many battles she was fighting while communicating with parents of Chinese students about learning difficulties, a social stigma in the country. But her fight itself was a pointer to a change in attitudes, slow initially, that is increasingly gaining momentum in China.

As with any stigma, a new approach starts with recognition, and universities are increasingly focusing academic interest on child development and special educational needs, particularly in the fields of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. A report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Psychology reveals that more than 10 million primary school students across the country are dyslexic. A separate report by Peking University Sixth Hospital estimates at least 5 percent of children in China suffer from ADHD, with only a tiny fraction diagnosed. 

Schools are noticing difficulties in classrooms … and beginning to request support.

Rebecca Dow, manager, LIH Olivia’s Place

A growing number of organizations and professionals are now trying to increase public understanding of learning difficulties and the ways to address them. LIH Olivia’s Place offers pediatric psychiatric services in Beijing and Shanghai and runs a school for children who require specialized curricula; their experts visit local schools and train staff to better provide for children with additional educational needs. The China Dyslexia Foundation, a charitable organization, trains social workers and teachers in Beijing to better understand reading disorders and support children with dyslexia. Shanghai-based ELG, founded over a decade ago to provide education to children with developmental disorders in the city, has since expanded to offer a range of services to the wider community. It trains local educators on SEN and arranges seminars and workshops for parents. And schools are responding. The programs offered by LIH Olivia’s Place, for instance, have until now focused on experimental schools, but they have seen a growth in requests for child assessments across the board. 

“In general, schools are noticing difficulties in classrooms — particularly where there is a behavior problem — and beginning to request support,” says Rebecca Dow, a clinical psychologist and manager at LIH Olivia’s Place in Shanghai. 

Special educational needs are the latest stigma that China has begun to tackle in the past decade. In 2007, with awareness of physical disabilities growing and a home Olympic Games on the horizon, the government signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; in 2013, the Mental Health Law of China was passed. 

But a shift beyond the baby steps that individual organizations, schools and universities have taken to a more comprehensive nationwide approach faces challenges. In a results-driven educational system with little understanding of differentiation and class sizes that exceed 60 children in certain areas, the environment is not naturally conducive to special educational needs. The lack of a government-backed approach to tailored learning is mirrored in the research of Xin Zhou, a professor in the department of early childhood education at East China Normal University. Through her work on children in early education with difficulties in mathematics, Xin has found that additional support for students with specific needs is not driven at a school level. “It depends mostly on [an] individual teacher’s decision to acquire and use the knowledge,” she says.

For a possible model, the mainland government need look no further than Hong Kong, where understanding of learning difficulties is far more established. There, the government’s initiatives for children needing additional support within the mainstream education system include early intervention programs and the introduction of SEN coordinators in primary and secondary schools, says Minna Chau, a clinical child psychologist and manager of the Sprout in Motion clinic. This is in addition to specialized schools and a wealth of private organizations providing support.

This state-run system is far from perfect and parts of it are little more than window dressing, says Chau, and the private sector’s support remains vital. But the direction is right. “In recent years, the government introduced a pilot scheme of on-site special education programs and cut the 8,000-strong waiting list for assessment in half,” she says. 

And a government support system in need of improvement is better than no system at all. “In China, the lack of support is even more profound and some families will have to either learn to teach their children themselves or move to another city or country to find support for their children,” Chau says.

Still, the growth of private and academic initiatives addressing special educational needs on the mainland is resulting in their message gaining traction. Some universities, such as East China Normal University, are seeking to train mentors who will support students, says Dow of LIH Olivia’s Place. Although the motivation for these programs is likely to ease the academic pressure felt by students, she believes the increased attention will aid children with additional learning requirements. 

Changes in approach takes time in a country of 1.3 billion people. But China is on its way.

*Name changed at the request of the teacher.