When musician Zhou Yunpeng was denied an account with one of China’s largest state banks last month, he learned that he had been classified as “a person incapable of civil behavior.” Mr. Zhou is blind.
“People don’t understand how disabled people live, how they operate cell phones or use bank cards,” says Zhou. “And if you don’t get along, you can’t talk about accessibility.”
Mr. Zhou eventually opened his account and received an apology from the bank. However, the incident sparked a heated debate on social media about how China is accommodating the physically and mentally disabled.
His experience also shows an astonishing discrepancy between the laws protecting people with disabilities in China and their actual application.
Like many European countries, China has an employment quota system that obliges public and private companies to reserve at least 1.5 percent of their jobs for disabled people, depending on the region. The base rate is lower than prescribed in many Western European countries, where the quota system was further developed after the First World War. France now prescribes 6 percent and Germany 5 percent, with penalties for larger employers who do not comply. When China introduced its own quota system in 2008, it was largely seen as a positive step towards recognizing the need to include jobs.
Denied: Zhou Yunpeng highlights poor treatment of the disabled
This is because disabled people in China are in a particularly dire situation. According to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), a government organization, only 9 million of the country’s estimated 85 million disabled citizens (approximately 6.5 percent of the country’s population) are employed.
The low numbers are the result of longstanding prejudices against disabilities. Most children with visibly obvious physical or mental impairments are hidden and home-schooled, if not simply abandoned. Around 900,000 children are born with a disability in China every year.
“Families with disabled children don’t know what to do with them. Without health insurance, they don’t have the money to look after them, ”says Kong Juan, who works for children with cerebral palsy in an orphanage in Hebei, northern China. “Twenty to 30 years ago, baby abandonment was far more common, although it is still a problem today. Every day you opened the gates of the hospital and found a child. “
Those who find work are almost always shuffled into a handful of professions reserved for token hiring. Massage and piano tuning are two particularly popular professions that primarily employ the visually impaired. According to the CDPF, at least 120,000 blind and visually impaired people are currently working as massage therapists.
“If I had been a normal person, I might have gone to university. But as a blind person there are few jobs that you think you can do, ”says Jeff Wu, a blind masseur from Beijing.
China’s Employment Quota Law was barely implemented in the early years, as non-compliant companies were not penalized. That changed in 2015 when regulators introduced incentives to adhere to quotas. Companies that fail to meet the quota will now pay fines based on the extent to which they failed to meet their obligation. These funds support training and services for disabled people.
Currently, China’s disabled population is an invisible but large group. It doesn’t make a sound
“Now more companies are being encouraged to obey the law. It is more leverage to help people find work, ”says Cyril Poulopoulos, the Chinese director of Handicap International, the charity network now known in some countries as Humanity & Inclusion. “China has made rapid progress [on disability issues] in the past ten years. “
However, a significant portion of employers prefer to pay the fine if caught, rather than employing the number of disabled workers required by law.
Multinational companies have been hardest hit by these measures, as penalties are calculated based on the average salary in their global business rather than an average local salary, which is usually much lower.
As a result, Handicap International claims to receive more requests to better accommodate employees with disabilities. However, the inquiries are mainly from multinational companies with offices in mainland China or joint ventures, rather than exclusively domestic companies.
One remaining challenge is ensuring real employment and career prospects, say advocates of disabilities. Workers with disabilities complain that companies are still keeping them on the lowest level and paying them the minimum wage.
“The main thing to fight against is spreading the charity approach. People have always seen how they fight together against disability and charity, ”says Hervé Bernard, Director of Handicap International. Businesses need to provide adequate opportunities, not “wrong jobs just to earn points”.
China has laws that guarantee the same protection and rights for people with disabilities. However, disabled people cannot mobilize to demand greater enforcement.
Mr. Zhou said he had no further problems accessing banking services while touring the country on musical tours. Other visually impaired people have told him that since the incident he has been routinely denied service at banks because staff prefer to avoid them.
“People don’t understand the law, which leads to a lack of equal service. The implementation of the law would be the most important improvement in the near future, ”he says. The problem is to mobilize people with disabilities to force society to recognize their existence: “At present, China’s disabled population is an invisible but large group. It doesn’t make a sound. “
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