China / Society

Student makes light work of disability

By Tan Yingzi in Chongqing (China Daily) Updated: 2015-06-04 07:55

Visually impaired former massage therapist's dream of better life brings academic rewards

The life of 32-year-old Zheng Jianwei is beyond the imagination of most visually impaired people in China.

Diagnosed as totally blind at birth, he has never had the chance to see light or color.

But the dream of pursuing a better life led him to become the first vision-impaired candidate to take the International English Language Testing System in China's southwest region and earn a master's degree in Britain.

Zheng graduated from a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages course at the University of Essex in Britain last summer.

The former massage therapist then returned home to Chongqing's Qianjiang district to start his English-teaching career.

He first offered English-language classes to some middle school students at home.

China has the largest population of blind people in the world, according to the World Health Organization - estimated to be about 8 million.

The career choices for the visually impaired in China are still limited. They usually involve attending a special school and learning to become a massage therapist.

If they want to pursue higher education, there is only one university in the country offering degrees for the blind.

"I have always refused to follow this path," Zheng said.

Like most of his peers, Zheng studied at special schools for visually challenged students since primary school before attending Changchun University in 2001.

After gaining a bachelor's degree in massage and acupuncture, he worked at a hospital in his hometown as a physical therapist until 2009.

China's national entrance exam for graduate schools does not offer a version for blind candidates.

It took Zheng three years of intensive study to score sufficient points in the IELTS, the language-fluency test essential for university admission in Britain. Taking the version of the test for blind candidates requires 10 hours.

Desmond Thomas, TESOL course leader at the University of Essex, offered Zheng a place in the course despite his limited teaching experience.

"Here was a person who was determined to break out of the confines of his disability, travel to another country and study alongside experienced teachers who were also native speakers of English," Thomas told China Daily.

Zheng was the first blind Chinese student to study at the university and the only one with a disability in his class of 13 students. His classmates came from China, Britain, Jordan and Kazakhstan.

Living and studying abroad, Zheng faced many hurdles.

It took him a month to memorize the 1.6-km route from his apartment to the university and at least two hours to prepare a simple meal.

Even with help from an academic assistant offered by the university, it took him hours to scan reading material into his computer so that he could use a screen reader, a software application to assist the visually impaired.

Zheng does not plan to rest on his laurels.

"I want to get a PhD and work for education for the disabled," he said. "Only through education can we gain more freedom."

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