When the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen planned to award public housing to people with disabilities, it probably didn’t expect the neighbors to object.
Yet last week, residents in Bao’an District protested when they saw details of the local government’s plans for a development called Hualian City Panorama. The district’s housing and construction bureau on July 16 had published a list of public housing candidates, since taken offline, that revealed the prospective tenants’ real names, partial ID numbers, and disability classification — for example, “mental illness, Class 1 severity.” Screenshots of the list were soon circulated online, and residents complained that they feared for their safety.
An apartment viewing scheduled for July 18 was canceled after the neighboring residents protested, Dami & Xiaomi, an online platform focusing on children with disabilities, reported Sunday. The platform added that the local government had planned to allocate public housing to 24 families, of which 15 households had an autistic member, while two others had members with other unspecified mental illnesses.
The candidate families were reportedly saddened at having their private information disclosed, especially since many of the disabled are children aged 6 to 12.
“Every time I saw online messages saying our kids were aggressive and mentally ill, it made my heart ache,” the mother of one child with autism told Dami & Xiaomi. Several of the parents declined Sixth Tone’s interview requests, citing privacy concerns.
In response to the residents’ concerns, the Bao’an District housing and construction bureau announced that it would have an expert review the candidate families with disabled members and “strengthen communication” with the current residents.
But Zhang Fengqiong, secretary-general of the Shenzhen Association for Families With Persons With Intellectual Disabilities, a nonprofit community organization that is monitoring the case, disagreed with the housing bureau’s decision to conduct an additional review. “The selection of candidates for public housing is very strict, and the government should already be aware of any mental or developmental conditions,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “If this review targets only some of the candidates but not others, it could be discriminatory.” She added that the government would be better-served to reconsider the loose-lipped policy that disclosed the candidates’ personal information in the first place.
There are around 12 million people living with mental, intellectual, or developmental disabilities in China. Yet despite efforts from both official and unofficial organizations to provide safe, inclusive living environments for these people, public awareness of disabilities remains woefully inadequate. “The public often make judgments from isolated incidents, and think that all people with mental disorders are violent and commit crimes,” she said.
Xie Yongbiao, a psychiatrist at Guangdong General Hospital in southern China, told Sixth Tone that although it’s unsurprising for some to be concerned about living around people with autism, as not everyone can understand their behavior, such concerns should not infringe on an autistic person’s right to a normal living environment. “Living in a community alongside other people benefits their rehabilitation and quality of life,” he explained.
Both Xie and Zhang suggested that in this case, the local government lies at the heart of the problem, and appealed for face-to-face communication between housing officials, the candidate families, and the current residents.
“The misunderstanding and protest come from a lack of knowledge,” Zhang said. “Disadvantaged people are the responsibility not of a single family, but of society as a whole. This is more than just a matter of providing a wheelchair or financial aid; it must be handled with a personal touch, in every community.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Two children with autism look through a window of their apartment in Changchun, Jilin province, May 6, 2016. Guo Quanxin/VCG)