Thursday, 5 August, 2021

Love breaks all barriers: special education lights up lives of the disabled

Aerial photo taken on May 11, 2021 shows a general view of Fengcheng Special Education School in the city of Dandong, northeast China's Liaoning Province. (Xinhua/Yao Jianfeng)

By Xinhua writers Huang Yan, Yao Jianfeng and Cai Xiangxin, SHENYANG, May 16 (Xinhua) -- Teng Huaiqing, 18, and He Li, 44, have been deskmates for five years.

He Li is Teng's mother.

Teng first uttered the word "mom" at the age of 6.

As an autistic patient, Teng is a student at Fengcheng Special Education School in the city of Dandong, Liaoning Province, northeast China.

"He was very clever but silent," He Li said. Teng's parents sensed something might be wrong as he was still unable to speak when he was two and a half years old.

The boy was then brought to Shenyang, the provincial capital, for an examination. He was diagnosed with autism.

Not knowing much about autism at that time, his family thought he would get better when he grew up. As a result, they missed the prime time for rehabilitation training.

When the child turned school-age, they went to two primary schools to sign up, but neither accepted Teng. "They suggested we come here," recalled He Li.

It takes He Li only 10 minutes by bicycle from home to the special education school. Yet, she had no idea about its existence until her son was enrolled.

Fengcheng Special Education School, founded in 1959, is now a boarding school that provides society adaptation rehabilitation and vocational training for people with disabilities such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and autism.

China marks the 31st National Day for Helping the Disabled on Sunday. The country has about 85 million people with disabilities, roughly the population of Germany.

Teng was able to attend classes following two years of rehabilitation training in the school. When his headteacher noticed that he was emotionally unstable, the teacher suggested that his parents accompany him.

"I've learned things every day over the past five years as the deskmate of my son. Not only does he learn, but I learn a lot, too," said his mother.

Back home, she continued to help her son with the rehabilitation and teaching techniques, using the knowledge she learned in school.

Teng is no longer spitting everywhere and makes his bed. From greeting classmates and reading texts fluently to winning a prize for drawing at the school's art gala and learning to play musical instruments, she remembered every progress her son made since he went to the school.

"Sometimes, when he performed on stage, he was in a good mood and high spirits," said He Li.

"If he were not in this school, I couldn't imagine what would have happened to him and our family," she added.



Special education students are often slow to learn, quick to forget, and have comprehension difficulties. Therefore, Fengcheng Special Education School encourages parents to take an active part in helping improve students' physical and mental well-being, just like He Li.

However, more than 90 percent of the students in the school are from rural areas, and many parents do not know how to raise their mentally disabled children appropriately.

Some parents have mental disabilities themselves, while others focus on healthy children. Some equate special education schools with welfare homes and kindergartens, taking it for granted that teachers should take care of students' daily lives.

"Some parents drop their children off in the morning, then change their phone numbers in the afternoon," said Li Hong, a teacher at the school.

But the school never gives up on a single child.

Sometimes, when teachers find new disabled school-age children in rural areas, they accept them under the requirement of "zero rejection."

Students come and go. "It is around 210, always changing," said Song Jibo, the school principal.

The annual financial allocation for the school is more than 2 million yuan (about 310,000 U.S. dollars), and the average public fund for students is eight times that of ordinary schools. The students' rehabilitation training, accommodation, school uniforms, and so on are all provided by the school free of charge, said Song.

It is also common for teachers to buy or give their own kids' clothes to students when they came up to the teachers saying they had no more socks or clothes for the season.

Since the students do not have full self-care abilities, safety is the top concern of the school authorities. The faculty and staff take turns to look after the students around the clock, considering almost everything carefully.

The school allows no motor vehicles from 11 a.m. to 11:05 a.m. on campus roads when students leave school for their homes during the noon break.

"This is for the safety of our students. They cannot react as fast as other people," said Song.

Female teachers observe and record girl students' menstruation regularly. If they notice someone has delayed menstruation, they would carefully find out the reason and make sure she was not sexually assaulted. If someone menstruates more than once a month, they help examine her and make sure she is in good physical condition.

For every five students on campus, there are at least two teachers. Teachers remember all students' names and know their situations like the back of their hands. Students know all the teachers and can identify strangers at a glance. They follow suit to greet guests if someone takes the lead.

What lies behind this seemingly ordinary performance is the teachers' extraordinary patience and passion.

During her accompanying study, He Li witnessed many times that the teachers help students tie their shoelaces and cut their nails and hair. Even when students defecate themselves, common among the disabled, it is always their teachers who do the cleaning and changing.

"Teachers here are all loving," she said.



Not all students are as lucky as Teng Huaiqing, attending classes every day and in his mother's company.

Shi Zhongda, who lives in Liangshui Village, Saima Township, Fengcheng City, has difficulty moving about because of cerebral palsy.

The 14-year-old boy is one of the 90 off-campus students who cannot attend school due to their physical or mental problems. Every Friday, teachers visit them and give lectures and rehabilitation training in their homes.

Li Hong teaches four students, including Shi, at their homes. During the 60-minute one-on-one session, she first helped Shi review what he learned last week, then taught him how to recognize the Chinese currency and judge its denominational values. She tried to teach the boy some simple calculations by simulating shopping.

Since people with autism and cerebral palsy usually have trouble meeting strangers, the school seldom reshuffles the pairs once the teachers win their students' trust. Li Hong and her colleague Li Hua have been visiting their students for nearly six years. Each round trip takes almost four hours and covers more than 300 km.

Shi is among the very few students at the school who can verbally express themselves. He said that he loves "whatever Ms. Li teaches," and addition and subtraction are his favorites. He would like to "deal with" the computer when he grows up.

His mother, Liu Chengli, found that Shi was more interested in learning and became better tempered. She planned to buy him a computer to facilitate his online study.

"Children must learn some knowledge. Without knowledge, a man is useless," said the 38-year-old mother of two, who only finished primary school.

China's regulation on education for the disabled requires access to nine-year compulsory education for all school-age children and adolescents with disabilities. No schools are allowed to decline their appeal for schooling. The requirement was simplified as "full coverage and zero rejection."

Fengcheng Special Education School started sending teachers to provide rehabilitation training or teaching for disabled students who could not attend the school in 2016.

Most of the students who need home teaching live in remote mountainous areas, with unknown road conditions and unreliable communication signals. The school doubled the driving premium for the teachers.

In Li Hong's opinion, it was a labor of love to teach students at their dinner table.

"The meaning of efforts lies in providing these children with dignity and a guarantee for life," she said.

For students with mental retardation, learning difficulties, and no language ability, Li and her colleagues provide rehabilitation training, such as massages.

By explaining the government assistance policies, they also helped some families solve their financial difficulties.



Of the 51 teachers, Sun Haiting, 27, is the youngest and the most junior at the school. She has been on the job for just one year.

Compared with her previous career experience, she believes she is now more patient and easy to please.

When a restless student can sit still for two or three minutes during a class, she would be delighted by "their great progress."

She is rewarded if a speechless student has eye contact with her for one second.

"I teach 10 words a semester. If my students can remember a few, I'll be very happy," said Sun.

There are moments when the smiling young woman cannot hold back tears.

"The schooling period should be the happiest time in these children's lives," she said. "We teachers sincerely hope that they will live well in the future."

This seemingly simple wish, however, means a huge challenge to some students with serious disabilities and health problems.

"Some of the students we teach at their homes were still alive last time, and the next time when we called, they were gone," she said, her eyes welling up.

Sun once gave rehabilitation training to an autistic student named Zhuangzhuang and found that he was interested in food. Like other colleagues, she bought some cookies to encourage the student.

Sun stopped teaching him this semester. One day on his way to class, Zhuangzhuang saw Sun and immediately wanted to run to her. His parent tried to stop him by telling him, "Miss Sun is not teaching you now."

No one expected that the 15-year-old boy, who usually could only say one or two words, shouted "mom" to Sun.

Sun started to cry. "He understands love," she said.