Jean W. YAN

A blind man plays an erhu on the streets of Beijing. A girl, also blind, sits beside him. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN

Approximately 83 million individuals in China have one or more disabilities. Much progress has taken place over the past thirty years for China’s disabled population, with the establishment of organizations and networks as well as mechanisms of operation. While individuals with disabilities have started receiving more respect than in the past, services and resources need to be expanded.

In China, individuals said to have disabilities are those who have suffered since birth or who have subsequently completely or partially lost physical, mental, or physiological and psychological functions, which therefore prevents them from performing some or all daily activities normally. Disabilities in China are currently categorized as sensory impairments (seeing, hearing, and speaking impairments), physical impairments, cognitive impairments, and psychological and mental impairments; some individuals have multiple impairments.

Development of Services

Development of services to individuals with disabilities can be roughly divided into three stages: The first stage (1949–1966), from the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, established a system for administering and managing matters such as housing, education, employment, and rehabilitation services for individuals with disabilities. For example, after the founding of PRC in 1949, local governments adopted most homeless individuals with disabilities and housed them in orphanages, social-welfare institutions, or nursing homes, depending on their age and degree of disability. Those who were living in urban areas and who were still capable of working were employed at community and neighborhood workshops and welfare factories (fu li gong chang ??). Welfare factories are organizations that employ specifically individuals with disabilities or individuals who are unable to seek competitive employment as their counterparts in the society. These organizations in return receive government subsidies. Individuals in rural areas were enrolled in collaborative groups (hu zhu zu ??? he zuo she ???) in their villages These groups were administrative units in the 1950s and 1960s in the rural communities that managed daily farming and other activities. The head of these units was usually elected by local villagers in the early days and later was appointed by the supervising government. During this period the second generation of the Chinese version of the Braille system was designed and implemented (the first generation was created in the late nineteenth century), special schools for people with hearing and speaking impairments increased from 41 before 1949 to 266 by 1966, and students receiving special education increased from two thousand to twenty-three thousand at the same time. In addition, associations were formed for individuals who had no or low vision, hearing impairments, and speaking impairments. Government agencies for rehabilitation services were set up as well as, special sports events, national conferences on disabilities, and a journal for blind or vision-impaired individuals.

During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the whole country was in chaos and facilities that provided services to individuals with disabilities stopped functioning.

Since 1978 rapid economic reform has brought profound social changes to China, leading to tremendous changes for people with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities are no longer considered useless or a burden to the family or society; they have been recognized for their creativity and spiritual capabilities. The public has shown more understanding, acceptance, and, most of all, respect for individuals with disabilities. At the same time, individuals with disabilities have had more opportunities to show their abilities and their unique and valuable contributions to society. A series of milestone laws and regulations has been passed since 1985 to guarantee the rights of disabled individuals regarding education, employment, housing, accessibility, and services. The creation of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) in 1988 united associations designated for different disabilities; CDPF became the most powerful voice for addressing the interests of individuals with disabilities and for providing them with program management and services.

Deng Pufang, the son of Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), China’s leader of economic reform, deserves a special place in the history of the development of disability programs due to his irreplaceable impact on the awareness of disabilities and his contributions to the cause of improving the well-being of the disability population in China. Because of his father, Deng junior was persecuted in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution when he was still a physics student at Beijing University and suffered injuries that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Since the economic reform, he used his special family influence and tax waiver benefits to establish the largest private enterprise of disabilities in China and attracted billions of dollars investment. In 1988, he assumed the first chairmanship of CDPF and stayed in the position for consecutive four terms until November 2008. During his twenty-year long tenure Deng made full use of his special status to promote services and legal rights for individuals with disabilities. Under Deng’s leadership, CDPF has extended and expanded significantly its services and assistance that benefited millions of individuals with disabilities. Meanwhile, the organization also established a national network that can provide effective management and perform advocacy functions for the individuals with disabilities.

Current Demographics

Because of the work of Deng Pufang and his colleagues, disability programs have flourished nationwide along with economic reform in China. According to the preliminary results of the Second National Survey on Disabled Persons (2006), China’s population of people with disabilities was estimated as 82.96 million, which was 6.3 percent of the total population, based on a 2005 census of 1,309.48 million people in China. Out of this population with disabilities, individuals with physical impairments made up the largest group (29.1 percent), followed by those with hearing impairments (24.2 percent), visual impairments (14.9 percent), mental or psychological impairments (7.4 percent), cognitive impairments (6.7 percent), and speech impairments (1.5 percent). Individuals with multiple impairments accounted for 16.3 percent.

Among these 82.96 million individuals with disabilities, 51.5 percent were males, and 48.5 percent were females. In terms of age, 4.7 percent of the population was under fourteen (3.87 million), 42.1 percent between the ages of fifteen and fifty-nine (34.93 million), and the remaining 53.2 percent sixty or more years old (44.16 million). Of individuals age fifteen and above, 48.11 million (60.8 percent) were married, 9.82 million (12.4 percent) were unmarried, and 21.16 million (26.8 percent) were divorced or widowed. Regarding place of residence, about a quarter of the disabled population lived in urban areas and three quarters in rural areas. Considering the degree of disability, less than a third (29.6 percent) of the population had first- or second-degree disabilities (more significant) and the majority (70 percent) had third- or fourth-degree disabilities (less significant).

The education levels for the po
pulation with disabilities were not proportional to the levels in the general population. Out of the 82.96 million individuals with disabilities, only 1.1 percent received college education, 4.9 percent obtained high school education, 15 percent had junior high education, and about 31.8 percent of the population had only elementary education. Illiteracy was very high, about 43.3 percent.

The 2006 survey estimated that 2.46 million children with disabilities (slightly less than 3 percent of the total population with disabilities) were of school age (ages six to fourteen). Statistics for children receiving education by disability type are presented in table 1.

Regarding employment, in urban areas 2.97 million disabled individuals were employed, and 4.7 million were not; 2.75 million (13.3 percent of total individuals with disabilities in urban areas) received minimum social security benefits, averaging 4,864 yuan a person. In rural areas 3.19 million received minimum social security benefits, averaging 2,260 yuan a person, with 13 percent of this subpopulation having an average annual income below 683 yuan.

TABLE 1 Percent of School-Age Children with Disabilities Receiving Formal Education in 2006

Visual Impairments 130,000 79.1
Hearing Impairments 110,000 85.1
Speech Impairments 170,000 76.9
Physical Impairments 480,000 80.1
Cognitive Impairments 760,000 64.9
Mental/Psychological Impairments 60,000 69.4
Multiple Impairments 750,000 41.0
Total 2,460,000 63.2
*The calculation of percentage is based on the 63.2 percent of all children enrolled.
Source: China Disabled Persons’ Federation.. (2007).

Services and Outcomes

Programs for disabled individuals in China have been working in the following nine areas of services over the past thirty years: rehabilitation, education, employment and social security, alleviation of poverty, cultural and sports activities, social support, protection of rights, development of information network, and organization construction. According to the report on the implementation of China’s tenth five-year work plan in disability, by 2005 China had 1,662 special education schools, more than 2,700 special classes in regular schools, 3,250 vocational education institutions, 3,048 employment agencies, more than 19,000 rehabilitation service centers, and 2,574 law service centers. As for delivery of services to individuals with disabilities, 6.42 million received rehabilitation services to different degrees, 80 percent of children were enrolled in schools (this percent refers to the individuals who received services), close to 0.6 million received vocational education, 7 million rural individuals came out of poverty, and 5.16 million urban individuals continued to have their basic needs met. In addition, individuals with disabilities have achieved outstanding results in cultural and sports activities in the world.

At the fifth China Disabled Persons’ Federation national congress in November 2008, Deng Pufang updated the figures by reporting that, according to China Daily, the country has 1,655 special education schools, 3,127 employment agencies, and 5,998 law service stops (???, local offices that help individuals with disabilities to protect their rights.) for the physically disabled.

The remarkable performance of Chinese athletes with disabilities in both the 2007 Shanghai Special Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Paralympics demonstrated convincingly the progress of disability programs in China. For the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, a total of 332 Chinese athletes participated in all twenty fields and won eighty-nine gold, seventy silver, and fifty-two bronze medals. The success has motivated millions of individuals with disabilities in China.

TABLE 2 Four Services Most Wanted by Individuals with Disabilities

Healthcare 72.8 35.6 37.2
Social/Financial Support 67.8 12.5 55.3
Assistive Technology 38.6 7.3 31.3
Rehabilitation Training & Services 27.7 8.5 19.2
Source: China Disabled Persons’ Federation. (2007).


The population of disabilities has been widely treated with bias in employment, education, communication and social life. Their average living standard has been below that of the general public. They have been considered one of the disadvantaged groups in China for many years. While great achievements and progresses have been made since 1949, individuals with disabilities still remain one of the most disadvantaged populations in China due to lack of resources and escalating competition in the labor market. For example, the four most wanted services by individuals with disabilities have not been universally delivered. (See table 2.)

How to narrow the gap between the population with disabilities and the general population, how to overcome the barriers to rehabilitation, education, accessibility, communication, and employment; and how to improve the mechanism that helps individuals with disabilities merge into the mainstream are serious challenges that the Chinese government faces in the years to come.

Further Reading

Asia-Pacific Development Center on Disability (APCD). (2009). Country profile: People’s Republic of China. Current situation of persons with disabilities. Retrieved January 10, 2009, from

China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF). (2009). Retrieved January 13, 2009, from

China Disabled Persons’ Federation. (2007). 2006 Main statistics report for the seco
nd national survey of disabled persons, no.2. Retrieved December 24, 2008, from

Chinese Disabled Persons’ Service Net. (2009). Retrieved January 13, 2009, from

Hallet, S. (2006). One eye on China: Questions, questions. Retrieved January 10, 2009,

Kohrman, M. (2005). Bodies of difference: Experiences of disability and institutional advocacy in the making of modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Standing Committee of the Eleventh National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China. (2008). Law on the protection of persons with disabilities. Retrieved January 10, 2009, from

The State Council of The People’s Republic of China. (2006). Outline of the work for persons with disabilities during the 11th five-year development program period 2006–2010. Retrieved January 10, 2009, from

The State Council of The People’s Republic of China. (2007). Regulations on the employment of persons with disabilities. Retrieved January 10, 2009, from

The State Council of The People’s Republic of China. (1997). Regulations on the education of persons with disabilities. Retrieved January 10, 2009, from

Wang, Q. (2008, November 12). Social insurance govt’s top priority for the disabled. China Daily. Retrieved December 24, 2008, from

Zhang, E. (2007). The protection of rights of people with disabilities in China. Retrieved January 10, 2009, from

Source: Yan, Jean W. (2009). Disability. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 612–616. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Deng Pufang (son of Deng Xiaoping, who was crippled by the Red Guards) meeting with Ted Kennedy, Jr., then a lawyer advocating for disability rights. Deng Pufang is known for his work protecting the disabled; in 1984 he established the China Welfare Fund for the Disabled. Then he founded and became the chairman of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation in 1988. In 2003, he was awarded the United Nations Human Rights prize for his work. PHOTO BY GEORGE TAME.

Disability (Cánzhàng ??)|Cánzhàng ?? (Disability)

Download the PDF of this article