“My dream is to be a soldier safeguarding my country,” says 13-year-old schoolboy Yongzhi. However, due to a hereditary limb condition, he is unlikely to grow as tall as his peers.
Yongzhi is one of 18 disabled children at Anding Primary School in Jingdong Yi Autonomous County of southwest China’s Yunnan Province. He is popular and known for his frequent laughter but secretly scared by mockery from his able-bodied classmates.
Since he has joined a photography class, he has gradually became more confident.
ONE PHOTOGRAPHY CLASS AND SIX STUDENTS
One day at the end of 2016, Yongzhi’s father was told that his son had been selected to join a photography class. His father was astonished, as Yongzhi had never seen a smart phone before, still less a camera.
Photography can be difficult for disabled children, who are physically or mentally challenged. More often than not, they need special instructions and extra tutoring after school.
Liu Yuyang, a freelance photographer who was awarded the Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship in 2014, does not view disability as a deficit that needs fixing. He says children are born equal, and they are entitled to look for the beauty of life whether they are disadvantaged or not.
Accordingly, Liu contacted Save the Children, a global organization for child development and protection, which has successfully piloted inclusive education programs in China for years, to use his expertise to help disabled children.
After a two-month preparation, he started his class, which has three disabled and three able-bodied children, a perfect model of inclusive education, where children can learn from each other.
From January to September in 2017, the 25-year-old photographer offered these students several sessions running from two to five days. Photo exposure, composition and other techniques were taught in the class.
Sometimes they went to the countryside to practice shooting, and Liu would leave cameras for his students after class to let them express their artistic talents freely.
“Besides normal class, I also organized photo exhibitions to encourage their artistic exchanges and peer reviews,” Liu says.
As an experiment in inclusive education, such class was provided under the spirit of non-exclusion, non-discrimination and acceptance of all.” The inclusive photography class was not designed solely for disabled children, but shared with non-disabled children. In the process, they learned how to participate and share. Sometimes the work could be done only by co-operation — usually one student coming up with ideas and the other shooting,” Liu says.
Yongzhi surprised his teacher with his people-focused photographs – grandmas shepherding sheep, schoolgirls playing basketball and fathers walking donkeys. His works shows a balance and harmony between motion and stillness.
Another student, 7-year-old Lu Youlin, took pictures of his older brother on a pathway near his home. Before the shooting, he put a flower upon his brother’s lips “to make the scene more artistic — a tip from my teacher.”
TOUGH INCLUSIVE EXPERIMENT
The photography class is just part of China’s experiment in inclusive education over the past five years.
“Whether in cities or countryside, the best way for disabled children to be integrated in mainstream society is receiving education in mainstream schools,” says Wang Xingxing, inclusive education project manager of Save the Children.
Wang has suffered from cerebral palsy since birth. In the 1980s, when most disabled children were denied the chance at normal schools because of a lack of physical access and specialist facilities, she was lucky to sit in the same classes as her able-bodied peers.
“Had I not shared the experience of studying and living with non-disabled children, I wouldn’t have accommodated to mainstream society as quickly,” she says.
Special schools are still prevalent given their specific care and skill training tailored for disadvantaged children, especially those with severe impairment. Yet a report by Save the Children said that students in such schools easily become stuck in a restricted environment and find it hard to be accepted by society once they leave school.
“Disabled people can scarcely be understood properly due to the lack of communication with non-disabled people. They might get discriminated in job interviews and questioned about their capability of ordinary work,” says Xie Renci, a disability rights activist, who lost her right leg in a car accident at 4 years old.
Xie was impressed by the photos. “They are equally good. Children are not judged by their IQ or physical capability,” she says.
China is speeding up its reform of the special education system. In 2015, China’s Ministry of Education confirmed 37 regions and districts as experimental areas of national special education reform, supporting them with policy, finance and special projects.
In May 2017, China released newly revised regulations on educating people with disabilities, making general education the main method, with special education complementary. This means that there will be more disabled children attending normal schools, with special education teachers providing assistance to them.
WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE
Yet challenges still remain. Teachers from normal schools often express concerns over the extra responsibility of taking on disabled children.
“A little accident that hurts these children will result in serious complaints and warnings from their parents. You know, it is quite normal for children to run around, but what if these disabled children get hurt?” says one teacher who wishes to remain anonymous.
From 2009 to 2015, Save the Children managed to pilot inclusive education projects at primary schools in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, transforming old special schools into resource centers, and training teachers and parents. Now it is working to encourage more teachers from special schools to reach out to disabled children in normal schools and co-operate with teachers there.
Wang Xingxing says that teachers should empower students with respect and support, and recalls the support she had at school on one winter’s day.
“The snow was nearly knee-high. My P.E. teacher worried about me so much that he proposed to carry me home on his back. But my class director offered to walk me home. So we stumbled all the way back home hand-in-hand, taking much longer time than usual.”
To eliminate discrimination and raise the public awareness, Wang calls upon not only teachers, but people like Liu to run multi-disciplinary classes in schools.
“I believe that in the near future that disabled children and non-disabled children sitting in the same classroom will become as ordinary and simple as when girls and boys began to attend the same schools a century ago,” Wang says.
When the inclusive photography class is over, Liu organizes a photo exhibition. During the exhibition, Yongzhi excitedly shares the stories behind his photos with his classmates. Hearing their applause, Yongzhi laughs, as he always does.
Yongzhi’s father used to be pessimistic about his son’s life, but looking at the exhibition and seeing his son’s pride in the photographs, he feels more upbeat.
After the exhibition, Liu asks the students about their future dreams and gets a varied response.
“I wish to be a teacher,” says one.
“I want to be an armored warrior,” says another.
Liu is inspired by their ambition. “Whether disabled or not, their dreams are pure and lovely. Every dream needs to be respected. So I wish to organize a photo exhibition tour for them, in hope of one day seeing their photos and stories travel around the globe.”