The Chinese government loves slogans. A major one coined by former Chinese leader Hu Jintao was "To build a hexie shehui - harmonious society." The Chinese Communist Party sees this as a shift from focusing purely on economic development to a more holistic goal of balance and harmony in society.
However, for people with disabilities and their families, a harmonious society would more specifically mean an inclusive society.
Adolescents and adults with autism and intellectual disabilities have very limited options in China. Most autism programs in China are short-term early intervention programs for young children. Parents live at the program with their children and learn techniques like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for an average of 3 months, with the idea that parents can serve as the child's teacher when they leave. In many districts there are public schools for children with intellectual disability, but these have a limited capacity and in many places turn away children with autism or more significant disabilities. Inclusive education, options have been slowly moving forward for the past two decades, however it remains extremely controversial and is often only open to students from wealthy or connected families in the most developed cities.
Most importantly, even for those students in China who do manage to receive a public education, this ends after age fourteen when their nine years of compulsory education are finished. This leaves them and their parents at the threshold of adulthood staring into a cloudy and uncertain future, with no support or services from society.
Luckily, there are many families that are bravely charging ahead. Parents have been the major catalyst for change in the autism and intellectual disability landscape in China. Many of the autism NGOs here that focus on parent training or support were actually started by parents themselves. These parents tend to be better educated and financially well off and have the resources and social status to put ideas into action, but some of them also come from modest backgrounds and are spurred by love for their children. More and more families no longer view disability as a loss of face or source of shame that should be hidden away at home. They have heard about what is possible for people with disabilities in more developed countries and they want the same for their kids.
Rongairongle is a family group with a mission to promote social inclusion for people with autism and intellectual disabilities. They have a variety of activities. They hold "sports fun days" where university volunteers are paired one-on-one with their peers with disabilities. The volunteers have usually had little contact with people with disabilities and this is often their first opportunity to learn about them as individuals.
The group's mission extends into public advocacy as well. Many of the group's families participate in their Chinese drumming group that performs at public events for holidays such as Chinese New Year and International Children's Day. At the end of the performance they all raise their hands and shout. Rongairongle Social Integration!
"We need to be more open a member of the group told me, "Now parents' attitudes towards their children with disabilities are more open, but society is still like a flower that just will not open."
To this end, other parent-started organizations like the Kangnazhou Autism Family Support Center are not only focused on bringing families together for support, but also equipping youth with skills for the future. In addition to parent workshops, they run vocational classes on computer skills and cooking. They have recently started a community gardening project. However, employment opportunities for youth are still limited, with no supported employment or job coaching programs. The teachers and parents that run the program dream of starting a social enterprise in the future to fill the void themselves.
In this goal they have some examples to look to. One is Huiling, the oldest Chinese NGO providing community based services for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities. With branches in many Chinese cities, their programs include vocational training, sheltered workshops that make handicrafts, and China's first group homes. Their Guangzhou organization has recently opened up a supported-employment social business: a bakery. After a 6-month training period, young adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities were employed and currently work side-by-side with co-worker job coaches. A visit to their kitchen is a testament to what is possible. The employees all work diligently and independently according to their individual schedules on the wall, with minimal help from their job-coaches. In addition to selling from their storefront, they cater orders from local businesses.
"The bakery serves three functions," one of the job coaches told me, "It earns some money for the organization, provides employment for adults with disabilities, and possibly most importantly it shows society what people with disabilities can do."
A social worker and disability activist told me that the "harmonious society" the Chinese political thinker Confucius first philosophized about is one that allows all members of society to cultivate their abilities. China has made incredible advances in its development over the past several decades. It will be exciting to watch as the inspirational people working to advance the position of people with disabilities in society help push it towards a future that finds harmony in inclusion.