By Gigi Chen
Xiao Zexin, a 20-year-old student from the Guangzhou School for the Blind, led the reporter to a music room on the fourth floor. He counted the iron bars of the window with his fingers, found the door easily, put the key into the lock and opened it.
Xiao is from Shantou, a northern coastal city 250 miles away from Guangzhou. It takes five hours for him to return home. He became blind at the age of 11 because of an illness. “I came here at the age of 12. Now I am learning massage at grade one in senior high school,” Xiao said.
Founded in 1989, the school is located in the Tianhe District. It has more than 300 students from Guangdong Province from kindergarten to technical secondary school. Compared with other schools for physically challenged students, it is the only one in the province targeting the blind.
On the ground, routes for the blind extend in all directions, leading to classrooms of different functions, such as a language lab, a computer room, a music room and a band room. Foam wraps pillar to keep the students from getting hurt. Students go up and down stairs with the help of banisters.
After the sound of the alarm bell at 7 a.m., Xiao washes, gets dressed and finishes his breakfast by himself. His first class begins at 8:45 a.m. He spends much of his day learning massage.
“I am studying the neural system in anatomy class,” he said. “At the beginning, we learned muscles and bones which can be touched. But for the neural system, we can only know it by text. Without pictures, it is a little abstract and challenging to understand.”
From primary school to junior high school, the courses are the same as general education, such as Chinese, mathematics and English. School also provides classes teaching fundamental life skills for younger kids, such as orientation and mobility.
Xiao only goes home twice a year on vacations. In Xiao’s spare time, he likes listening to audio books. He is listening to a famous Chinese contemporary million-character novel “Ordinary World” written by Lu Yao, and estimates that he can finish it in two weeks.
“For me, reading books is a way to kill time,” Xiao said. “I play computer games sometimes, although games for us are not so many.”
Xiao is also a member of the student union and is responsible for contact with the volunteer team that helps students with their homework. He also collects questions from the monitors, or elected student leaders, of the junior high school. Every other Thursday, he gathers them in a Word document and sends it to the team leader, who assigns them to volunteers.
“Although some of them will connect with volunteers personally, considering that it is hard to manage, I insist them to tell me every time about what is happening,” Xiao said.
The school has a variety of extracurricular activities, like the student union, scientific groups, bands and a radio station. In junior high school, students get computers. They can use a piece of software called “screen reader,” which converts text into sound.
“What our kids like most is outside activities. We went to Shenzhen for a trip once. We go to communities to perform and hold charity bazaars,” said Wu Yusen, a teacher in charge of student extracurricular activities in the school. “The school is small. Being in a limited space doesn’t benefit their development. Going outside broadens their horizons and enables people to get in touch with them as well.
“The society has prejudices against them. The most serious problem for them is a job opportunity. It seems that it is their destiny to be masseurs,” Wu said.
Xiao wanted to be a soccer player once. He depended on his hearing to locate the ball. “But the school’s space is limited, and I have much homework now,” he said.
According to WHO statistics in 2010, China has eight million blind people, accounting for 21 percent of the blind globally. Massage is one avenue for jobs. In fact, the number of blind masseurs is 20,000 in China now, according to the Statistical Bulletin of China’s Undertakings Development for physically challenged persons.
Wu said safety is one concern of employers. Handicapped-friendly buildings are often inadequate, so the blind often cannot function without a companion. “I think their weak position in our society is due to deficiency of resources for them,” he said.
China has designed a special education system from kindergarten to college for the blind. Students get into school for the blind at different levels. After finishing the nine-year compulsory education, many of them get into technical secondary school.
Only three universities enroll blind students, which includes Beijing Union University, Binzhou Medical College in Shandong Province and Changchun University in Jilin Province. Students who enter these colleges take the independent examination and enrollment held by colleges instead of college entrance examination held nationally. However, the majors are limited. Students can only enter two majors: acupuncture and massage, and music performance. Only students with a talent and a wealthy family can afford the later one.
In America, blind students apply for universities in the same way as normal students. The majors are not limited. Blind students learn and live together with other people.
Xiao’s school has a class in senior high school for students who want to take the college entrance examination in 2015 for the first time. They learn courses the same as general education schools, as well as courses for massage. “They must study harder than us,” Xiao said.
In 2012, United Nations released the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It recommended China reallocate the resources invested in the special education system and promote integrated education in mainstream schools so that more physically challenged children can receive a general education. 2014 witnessed the first year that the blind can take the college entrance examination together with other students. Zhejiang, Ningxia, Anhui and five other provinces provide tests in Braille for the blind examinee.
Xiao has a classmate who develops computer programs designed for the blind for Tencent, an IT company. A senior student is running a music instrument store. Although Xiao is learning massage, he is also looking to enter a university. “I hope that one day I can enter college. But I didn’t choose the class for general education. It means that I have to learn by myself and learn harder,” he said.