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Dedicated teachers give disabled children a future
By Cao Li (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-09-10 07:37

At an age when his peers are starting to plan their careers, teenager Chen Xiaohui is only just learning how to swallow food.

His mother has felt so happy to see her son put on one kilogram, that is, from 22 kilograms to 23 kilograms in the last two months, after mastering this skill.

"He has managed to eat non-mashed meat and vegetables recently, which for him is a huge progress," said his mother Wang Guanyi, with a tired but excited look.

Having experienced tight umbilical cord compression around his neck during childbirth, Chen was mentally retarded and therefore developed much more slowly than other children.

He only took his first steps at the age of 10, when he entered the Shanghai Luwan District Special Education School for the mentally disabled. And it was not until the third year in school that he began to swallow solid food.

Mastering simple skills like swallowing or clicking a computer mouse can take years for kids like Xiaohui and others in the school with intellectual defects and autism, said Wu Guizhen, a veteran teacher with the school, who has been widely regarded as a pioneer of special education in China.

The path of learning can be long and arduous for the kids because they easily forget those skills, he said.

For instance, Chen sprained his ankle last month and rested in bed for several days, after which he had forgotten how to walk, said Wang.

While teachers of most kids in the country instil knowledge and ambition into their minds, those at the Luwan District Special School concentrate on teaching the boys and girls the basic skills of survival.

"We hope they can at least cope with some situations in life after graduation," said He Jindi, the headmaster.

All kids above 6th grade are made to practise some social skills every week like walking across the road, shopping in a market or sweeping the street.

The school shows them how to do these things while at the same time protecting themselves, and even teaches them skills in how to deal with some embarrassing situations.

"We tell them how to discern dangerous people and situations and what to do to protect themselves," said He.

A girl from the school was once followed and harassed by a man in the street. Recognizing his malign intentions, she screamed in the street, which attracted other passers-by, who then called the police.

"When the police finally found us and told us the story, we were extremely happy," said the headmaster.

The girl's story shows that teachers at the school have made at least some achievements in preparing the mentally disabled kids for the dangers and frustrations they may encounter in society.

"They won't stay at the school forever. We have to prepare them for society, and that is, to tell them that they are different - they have their weaknesses," said He.

In the meantime, teachers at the school keep telling every kid in the school they can be as promising as everyone else in the world.

"Every one has his or her strong and weak points. As teachers, we must make them believe that they have their own strengths, which are different from those of others, despite their obvious weaknesses," said He.

Teachers at the school are proud that many of their students are dreaming of the future and confident enough to tell others about their ambitions.

Eighteen-year-old Chu Zhenglong wants to be a computer engineer in future, a dream which a cerebral palsy patient like Chu might never be able to realize.

"I want to create a computer game combining the popular, simple Bubble Shooter and the brain-consuming Age of Empires," said Chu with a broad grin.

"And I want to kill all the viruses and drive hackers out of our country," he added.

Chu's belief is that where there is a will, there is a way.

There may be a chance that his dreams will partly come true, according to his headmaster.

Some graduates of the school who have working abilities and stable moods are able to find jobs as doorkeepers, cleaners, workers in supermarkets and kitchen hands.

But many others have to stay at home or go to Sunshine Home, a place set up by the local government for the mentally disabled and the physically disabled to do some simple manual work, and spend time together.

And despite all its goodness, the centre is still an enclosed community, separated from most of the population.

"The greatest wish of us teachers is that there can be more ways to help these naive kids full of dreams to have at least a chance to try," said Xu Lin, deputy headmaster of the school.

"But the fact is that many of them are easily deprived of the chance after first failures, or not given a chance at all," she added.

Handicapped kids with Intelligence quotient (IQ) above 50 can choose to go to normal schools, but they frequently drop out.

Some of them finally come back to special schools.

There are 24 special schools for the mentally retarded in Shanghai. But they are always short of teachers and volunteers as the special kids need one-to-one teaching.

Fortunately, businesses in Shanghai are offering a helping hand in the special education area, in addition to the government.

The multinational AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company gave an award of US$12,000 in total to 11 teachers at the school for their dedication to the special education this week, on the eve of the Teachers' Day.

Being optimistic about the future, these teachers agreed that special education in Shanghai is still far from being fully fledged.

Sources with the municipal disabled persons' federation said there were more than 70,000 mentally disabled people in Shanghai. Most of them still stay at home rather than attend special schools.

"A larger proportion of the kids among them could achieve a better performance if they could get special education," said He, the headmaster.

(China Daily 09/10/2005 page3)

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