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  • Chris McMillan

Campaigners in China struggle to improve the lot of the disabled

The Economist

20th March 2021

Campaigners in China struggle to improve the lot of the disabled

Long ostracised, growing numbers of disabled people are demanding their rights

FEW PEOPLE relish a visit to the dentist. For those who are autistic, it can involve unusual torment—some people with the condition have extremely sensitive mouths. Most of China’s autistic people avoid going. But bad teeth can also make them miserable. So last year the Shenzhen Autism Society, an NGO in the southern Chinese city, launched an attempt to make dental treatment less scary for some.

The programme has helped about 45 autistic people aged between four and 40 to conquer their fears. Participants have been encouraged to engage in pleasurable distractions while waiting, and to spend time getting comfortable in the dentist’s chair before procedures begin. With younger ones, their parents’ mouths are sometimes examined first. One nervous father summoned up the courage to undergo a treatment that his son needed, too. Watching this encouraged the autistic boy to allow the same to be done to him.

In China, such grassroots efforts to improve the lives of the disabled are rare. But NGOs—though severely restricted by the government in many other spheres—are being allowed to do more in this one. Their involvement is badly needed. The government is also doing more to help. Yet it does not recognise as disabled many of those who would be officially regarded as such in rich countries. In 2011, when China’s most recent available census data were published, over 85m people—about one in 16—were classified as disabled (including 21m who were deaf and 13m blind.) That compares with one in five in Britain and one in eight in America. Unlike in the West, China’s definition of disabled does not cover those with chronic illnesses. It also excludes many people who have use of their limbs, but struggle with routine tasks.

Of those who meet the census definition of disabled, far fewer than half have the government certificates that are needed to obtain disability support such as reduced medical fees and tax breaks. And even among people with the required documentation, only 12m (around one-third) last year received the living allowance to which the disabled with low incomes are entitled. That is striking given that many of the 85m people counted as disabled are poor. Three in four live in rural areas.

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