Before the first half of Dong Ming’s class was over, all three of his new students had walked out. “Perhaps they were disappointed when they saw me, so they left,” Dong, who has a speech impairment, scribbled out on a notepad he showed to a Sixth Tone reporter.
Dong, 28, is a certified accountant, and every weekend he volunteers to teach free seminars at his local community center. But students often leave because they can’t understand him. Dong has a form of cerebral palsy that affects his speech and motor control. It has also seriously impacted his career due to widespread discrimination against people with disabilities.
Dong hasn’t been able to secure a fitting job since he was certified in 2010. Some companies have told him outright that they recognize his skills but won’t employ someone with impaired speech. After years of dogged job hunting and even trying his hand at running a small bookstore, in December 2012 Dong took a minimum-wage job at a metals factory, one of China’s many social welfare enterprises aimed at employing disabled workers.
Dong Ming during an interview with Sixth Tone at his local community park in Tongling, Anhui province, Sept. 24, 2016. Fu Danni/Sixth Tone
The central government’s current five-year plan reports that roughly 2 million disabled citizens are living in extreme hardship. A range of national and provincial policies in China aim to address employment discrimination against people with disabilities through targeted job placement assistance, social welfare enterprises, and a quota system that gives companies tax breaks for hiring employees with disabilities, but they haven’t always hit their mark.
“Though the government and disability union have done so much work, there are still problems with the implementation of these benefits and actual support on the ground,” said 43-year-old Fang, a senior manager in Shanghai who has a severe disability that affects the strength of his bones. In order to avoid being recognized by officials, he insisted Sixth Tone refer to his surname only. He feels policymakers could benefit from more consultation.
“The disabled have their own thoughts and their opinions are important,” Fang said. “Otherwise, a policy with good intentions might not be very useful.”
Many people with disabilities say that though they welcome affirmative action policies, efforts still haven’t tackled the heart of the problem. The income gap between disabled and non-disabled people is growing, and annual statistics show the number of disabled people who’ve found work has been falling for each of the last three years. Disabled people believe their talent and capacity for skilled, meaningful work goes largely unrecognized by employers, and many of the positions created through the quota scheme and social welfare enterprises are minimum-wage manual labor jobs offering no real potential for career advancement.
The factory that employs Dong Ming is a social welfare enterprise that enjoys reduced taxes in return for providing more jobs for disabled workers. Based in Dong’s hometown of Tongling, a city in eastern China’s Anhui province, the factory is part of the Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group, one of China’s Fortune 500 companies. Of the factory’s 238 employees, 64 have disabilities — the majority are hearing impaired and a few are amputees. Dong is the only one with cerebral palsy. All but eight of the disabled workers earn the local minimum monthly salary of 1,350 yuan ($202), or 1,015 yuan after tax.
“Regulations require that wages for disabled people aren’t lower than the local minimum wage, so they simply give us the minimum wage,” Dong told Sixth Tone. “You can’t say they violate the policy.”
Dong works alone most days in a dim warehouse about 70 square meters in size, guarding and checking inventory, with his only company being the sound of churning machinery in the workshop nearby. In nearly four years, he hasn’t made any friends because the other three warehouse staff members mostly work in an office upstairs, and he isn’t allowed to leave his post. Unlike his amputee co-workers, Dong can’t speak clearly, and unlike his deaf co-workers, he doesn’t know how to use sign language.
Dong Ming writes notes in order to communicate with his deaf colleague at the factory in Tongling, Anhui province, Sept. 23, 2016. Fu Danni/Sixth Tone
The China Disabled Persons’ Federation categorizes disabilities from Level 1, for the most severe disabilities like Fang’s, down to Level 4 for the most minor. Higher pensions are allocated to those whose disabilities are more severe. For more common disabilities such as vision impairment, there is more targeted support. But even then, some feel pushed into occupations they would rather escape.
“Massage is my only choice,” said 26-year-old Sheng Yu, who works in a popular Shanghai chain staffed entirely by blind masseurs. Although he can earn 5,000 to 10,000 yuan each month, much more than disabled employees in social welfare enterprises or most ordinary workplaces, Sheng dreams of becoming a lawyer. He feels being cloistered in special schools since he was a young child has narrowed his options, and that segregation has actually increased prejudice toward people with disabilities.
“I don’t like this educational system where the blind always keep together,” he said. “If we could study with non-disabled people, it would be totally different. At the very least, they wouldn’t look at us like they’re looking at animals.”
All workplaces in China are required to take action to reduce the underemployment of people with disabilities under the national quota scheme, not only dedicated social welfare enterprises. Inspired by a similar quota system in the U.K., China’s scheme mandates that at least 1.5 percent of employees at a company be people with disabilities, though some provinces have set higher targets. If an employer fails to comply, they’re required to pay a levy into a disability employment fund based on their total number of employees, the average local wage, and how far they’ve fallen short of their provincial quota.
Though the quota scheme began in the early 1990s, it didn’t really take off until after 2004, when the tax department took over collecting the levy from local disability unions. According to the International Labour Organization, in Beijing the fund had accumulated 750 million yuan in the 12 years before 2005 and then 950 million yuan in 2006 alone. But some companies still prefer to pay the levy rather than hire disabled people.
Fan Jing, 26, is head of human resources at a small chemical company in eastern China’s Zhejiang province where management chooses to pay the levy. “To be honest, there is discrimination,” she said. “The manager thinks the disabled aren’t efficient.” She said factory employees have to be able to lift heavy objects and drive forklifts, while office employees are expected to look “decent,” so the company hasn’t employed any people with disabilities.
Other companies seem to do the bare minimum required to meet the quota and avoid the levy. Most employers are only motivated by economic interests, said Peng Jianfeng, an expert on labor and human resources who teaches at Renmin University. “They want to recruit disabled people for low-wage positions so they can save money,” he said.
Though he is disabled himself, Fang understands employers’ concerns as well as the challenges facing disabled people. Over the last decade, he has managed to work his way up from an entry-level position to a senior management role at an information technology company in Shanghai. He did it with a primary school education, but he said disabled people are mostly in the same boat, lacking the education, skills, and experience needed to be competitive in the job market. Discrimination in educational institutions limits the potential for professional development.
Dong Ming sits in the classroom at his local community center after his students leave in Tongling, Anhui province, Sept. 24, 2016. Fu Danni/Sixth Tone
In some cases though, discrimination persists even when disabled people are highly skilled, well-qualified, and don’t need significant accommodations in order to do their job. Just being disabled, they say, is enough for them to be perceived as incapable.
For 33-year-old Lu Yi, a friend of Dong Ming with a Level 3 physical disability, starting his own tech business seemed the best option, but he knew he would have to counter stereotypes and stigma. “I outline my skills and my tech expertise, and I hide my disability,” Lu said, explaining how non-disabled partners manage face-to-face negotiations with clients. Though some government support is available for disabled entrepreneurs, Lu didn’t want his company to be associated with aid.
That people with disabilities can only be employed through charitable means is yet another stereotype. Wang Jing, a 30-year-old with Level 2 cerebral palsy and a member of Disabled Voice, an advocacy organization, has distilled down his own list of popular misconceptions. “The blind are masseurs, the deaf and mute are thieves, and the amputees are beggars on the street. The disabled are weak people who should stay at home waiting for help.”
Wang said pervasive cultural discrimination is part of why he has been reluctant to try new things. In 2010, he earned high marks on the civil service examination in Tongling, but when he reached the face-to-face interview stage, he was given the worst score of all that day’s candidates. In August, a visually-impaired candidate was also rejected from a government job in Hunan province despite getting the highest score.
“From education to employment to society, the disabled don’t receive equal treatment,” Wang said.
For labor policy analyst Peng, biases ingrained in culture are the root of employment discrimination against the disabled. While economic incentives and sympathy are pushing some to hire people with disabilities, employers need to appreciate that people with disabilities have a lot to offer.
“Disabled people aren’t a burden on society,” Peng said. “They also create value for society.”
(Header image: A disabled worker walks by a production line at a factory in Shenzhen, July 19, 2014. Huo Jianbin/ Nanfang Metropolis Daily/VCG)