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    The Car Wash Scrubbing Away Ableism

    Organizations push past profit concerns to employ people with mental disabilities in China.

    GUANGDONG, South China — Cao Jun’s son is only 15, but the clock is ticking. For now, he attends a subsidized special education school where, among regular subjects, he learns how to bake cookies and play the accordion. But when he turns 18 and graduates, he will need to look for work — and the odds of finding any aren’t in his favor.

    The employment rate for people with disabilities is around 50 percent in China, but of the 5.68 million people living with an intellectual disability, less than one-tenth can land a job.

    Cao’s son has a learning disability. “The only wish of families with children like this is that they can find a job,” Cao says, “so that even when their parents have passed away, they won’t go hungry — so that they at least have some income to buy food.”

    Back in 2013, Cao, a venture capitalist, took a monthslong sabbatical to research the various work opportunities available in China for people with mental disabilities. The results were disappointing: Many projects depended on customers’ goodwill to pay for what in Cao’s eyes were essentially subpar products.

    “To be honest, the kind of rabbit-shaped handicrafts they make — who’d want those?” Cao says. “The cookies and bread — who’d want to eat that? Even I’m reluctant to eat the pastries that my son brings back from school. Who knows whether or not they’ve washed their hands after going to the bathroom?”

    With over a decade of experience in investing, Cao knows how ruthless the market can be. As such, he couldn’t bear the thought of his son spending his entire life producing objects that only warm-hearted clients would purchase. “I want to prove that my son is the same as you and me,” he says. “But [making a living] like this, you have to ask people to buy the useless things you’ve made, like a beggar.”

    In China, there are default vocations for some disabilities — many blind people, for example, are trained in massage therapy. With that in mind, Cao set out to find a line of work in which people with mental disabilities could compete.

    The result was Xihaner Car Wash — xihaner means “happy and simple children” and is used affectionately to refer to people with mental disabilities. The car wash, located in China’s sprawling southern city of Shenzhen, provides its all-adult employees with food, education, and accommodation for out-of-towners. Cao and other parents invested 1 million yuan ($150,000) into the project, which is nonprofit.

    Whenever cars drive into the shop, a group of cleaners rush out. With loud pop music playing in the background, they stick to their tasks: One person sprays water and foam, one washes the windows, one cleans the tires, and another wipes down the exterior. Fifteen minutes and 40 yuan later, the car shines like new.

    Cao tests the abilities of new hires by asking them to clean a whiteboard the size of an SUV. Some mainly focus on the bottom of the board, so Cao arranges for them to wash the cars’ undersides. One young man insisted on cleaning in circular motions, and so he’s put on tire duty. As a sort of incentive system, employees who perform well get to spray the water and soap, which Cao says “is like a funny game to them.”

    But in the three years since the car wash opened, the project has been a drain on resources. They’ve washed on average 34 cars a day — not enough to cover costs. The weather is partly to blame: During the summer, few people feel the need to wash their cars, content with the cleansing power of the typhoons that regularly beat down on southern China. At Xihaner, teams of five do what, at competing car washes, is done by two people, but salaries are comparable and extra personnel is necessary to oversee and train those with mental disabilities.

    Such extra costs haunt the balance sheets of other companies that employ people with mental disabilities, too. Cui Yonglan, 47, employs around 50 such workers at her packaging factory in Qingdao, a coastal city in eastern China’s Shandong province. They do simple tasks, such as folding paper packaging into box shapes. But they’ve brought Cui costs — such as additional supervisors — and responsibilities she didn’t used to have. Her employees with mental disabilities are adults with childlike levels of intellectual development, and so she worries about their emotional well-being, whether they can bear the workload, and whether they can arrive on time and get home safely. Her employees with mental disabilities earn just 1,000 yuan a month, but have smaller workloads and shorter working hours than other employees.

    Though Cui receives government help — including free insurance for the workers — profit margins have shrunk. “Their production will have a higher defect rate, so we have to make up for that,” Cui says. Folding packaging is a task in which mistakes are easy to correct, but it does mean that Cui and her colleagues have to work overtime to safeguard quality. Some clients are understanding when there are delays; others aren’t. Since the factory started employing people with mental disabilities about four years ago, it has lost one-fifth of its customers.

    But Cui is determined not to give up. Every day she notices employees improving their communication skills. Cui has a disability herself: In a work mishap, four of her fingers were cut short by a machine. She knows that the finances of families with a disabled relative can be precarious: Fifty families would lose their last resort if she stopped employing people with disabilities.

    Work also serves a social function that her employees would be hard-pressed to fulfill elsewhere. Before Du Shifeng, 45, started working at Cui’s factory, his parents, fed up with taking care of a middle-aged man, would force him to wander the streets during the day. Du, like many mentally disabled people in China, has never been given an exact diagnosis. He lacks basic skills to take care of himself: He wets his pants, he doesn’t like taking baths, and he might wear one T-shirt for a whole month without realizing that it’s dirty.

    For Du’s septuagenarian parents, taking care of him is only getting more challenging as they themselves get older. There’s a lack of care centers for adults with disabilities in China, which has driven some elderly parents to desperation: In two widely reported cases in recent years, an 83-year-old mother killed her mentally disabled adult son and reported herself to the police, and an elderly man killed himself and tried to kill his mentally disabled son with pesticide.

    For the past decade, Lin Chunhua has visited every career fair in Qingdao, clutching to the sliver of hope that she could find her 33-year-old son Guo Qiang a job. His mental capabilities and behaviors are equal to those of a 5-year-old. “He’s the last person employers would like to hire,” Lin tells Sixth Tone.

    Lin says her son is restless, emotional, and stubborn. It’s hard for him to concentrate, and he needs to take his medicine on time to stay calm. But he’s always trying his best, she says. “He’s just a slow learner. But now, he can buy himself breakfast and remember to take the change back,” she says. “He’s making progress day by day.”

    Guo eventually landed a job in Cui’s factory. For his mother, it was the first time in 30 years that she felt a sense of freedom. When Guo was only 8 months old, high fevers and seizures affected his brain development. Lin, who had just gotten laid off, decided to stay home to take care of him. Many parents of mentally disabled children have no choice but to do the same, she says.

    Lin’s burden became heavier when her parents and in-laws grew older and got sick. She had to take care of four elderly people and Guo at the same time. “I kept asking myself when this kind of life could come to an end, and I couldn’t help but think, ‘If I got sick in the future, who would take care of me, and who could take care of my son?’” she says in a small voice. “I’ve never had a good night’s sleep.”

    Cao of Xihaner Car Wash has a bigger vision of how people with mental disabilities can receive help after their parents pass away. He hopes to see Xihaner Car Wash become a nationwide phenomenon — the same way blind people all over the country have become masseuses and masseurs. Currently, 11 such car washes have opened in other cities around China. Cao also hopes that governments can cover site rental expenditures and the salaries of assistant employees — who he argues can be considered social workers and thus would qualify the car washes for financial support under a 2015 guideline for organizations that employ many people with severe disabilities. This way, the car washes can make a profit — money they ought to, in Cao’s vision, spend on supporting care centers for retired employees.

    However, the plan is off to a bad start. Cao’s many years spent appealing for support have gone nowhere. In Shenzhen, the district’s disabled people’s federation told him to appeal to a higher department, while the municipal federation ignored his requests. Cao feels helpless. “Shenzhen has 99 neighborhoods, and if each neighborhood could build a [government-backed] car wash for mentally disabled people, in addition to my own, this city would solve 1,600 people’s employment problems and save 1,600 families,” he says.

    Such problems don’t worry Cao’s employees. Zhou Hui, 23, likes washing his favorite car brands — Mercedes-Benz most of all. “But so far, I have only washed one,” he sighs, followed a moment later by a happier realization. “Oh, but I also like BMWs. I’ve washed those a lot.”

    On a rainy day in June, the LED screen that counts the number of cars washed at Xihaner stands at 36,363. It hasn’t changed for a while, and a typhoon is coming: Customers will likely be scant in the coming days.

    While his colleagues are napping in the lounge, 24-year-old Li Jiashi stands near the street, looking at the sky. “I hope it will stop soon,” he says, mostly to himself. “Sunny means money.”

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: An employee washes a car at Xihaner in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, June 6, 2018. Wang Lianzhang/Sixth Tone)