Chen Huixian vividly remembers leaving her apartment on her own for the first time: She stumbled on a trash can and then bumped into a motorcycle, setting off its alarm.
“I couldn’t get over my fear of the piercing sound,” Chen said.
For the 23-year-old student, making that solo journey was part of a final exam at the Golden White Canes boot camp, which prepares individuals with visual impairments for college and life afterward. Chen was among the 20 students who graduated from the program, held this year in Shanghai, in mid-August.
The Golden White Canes boot camp began in 2018 with support from the China Disabled Persons’ Federation. The eight-day camp’s primary objective was to teach visually impaired students to move about independently, along with other social and practical skills ranging from lessons on computers to reproductive health.
Yang Qinfeng, the program’s director, told Sixth Tone many students who come to Golden White Canes have only had experience living with other visually impaired peers, and they’re often educated in special schools that keep them isolated from others.
“Special education also means segregation,” Yang said. “A lot of them are overprotected by their family in terms of where they can hang out and who they can talk to. They’ve never lived in a collective or had a typical social experience.”
Students practice using canes at a Golden White Canes boot camp in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, 2018. Yang Bo/CNS/People Visual
In 2015, China approved students with visual impairments to take the gaokao — the country’s rigorous college entrance examinations — with assistance from Braille and enlarged test papers, though these materials haven’t always been readily available in some parts of the country. Approximately 37 visually impaired students have since passed the exams and enrolled in colleges, according to official figures.
For many visually impaired students, going to college isn’t just an academic milestone; it’s also the first time they’ve left familiar surroundings and dived into socializing with the wider world.
The transition can be intimidating, Yang said.
Though students can walk normally through confined spaces like homes and classrooms without additional assistance, larger spaces like college campuses are generally full of uncertainty and take a longer time to navigate — though there have been some small yet notable advances to help them adapt. Shanghai, for example, has tactile sidewalks for the visually impaired, and one of its schools, Shanghai Normal University, introduced a barrier-free study center for its visually impaired students last year.
However, people working with the disabled community say that’s not enough, with many visually impaired people still facing discrimination at schools and workplaces.
Li Na from the One Plus One Disability Group, a nonprofit for improving disabled persons’ quality of life, said schools and employers often turn down students with visual impairments, citing a lack of care and resources at their institutions. Though China has provisions on anti-discrimination as well as a law stating that people with disabilities should make up at least 1.5% of the workforce, experts say they’re poorly implemented.
“Their knowledge about the (visually impaired) community is very limited,” Li told Sixth Tone, referring to schools and employers. “Within a short amount of time, people with visual impairments are capable of doing the same work as anyone else.”
Graduates like Chen from the Golden White Canes are a case in point.
On the final day of her program, Chen was asked to go to Chenghuang Temple — a famous tourist site in Shanghai — using public transportation. She said she was alarmed when a stranger offered to help her after she got off the bus and relieved when her phone notified her the destination was close.
It was 6 p.m. when Chen arrived at the temple. She had followed the sound of bells ringing across the street.
“If one day we can go out independently and read whatever book we want, then when people joke about our eyes and disabilities, I’ll proudly respond: What’s the difference between us?” Chen said.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: A visually impaired woman crosses the street in Shanghai, May 20, 2020. People Visual)