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Program promotes self-respect for the intellectually disabled

By Li Lei | China Daily | Updated: 2017-11-20 07:11

The government and NGOs are working together to ensure that people can obtain work and improve their lives, as Li Lei reports.

In some developed countries, people with intellectual disabilities, such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome are enrolled in supported employment programs that offer them the opportunity to work. Now China is catching up.

Liu Shunli could be mistaken for a regular store assistant were it not for his clumsy movements and the meticulousness way he performs his tasks, such as attaching price tags to containers, folding cake boxes and mopping the floor at a branch of the Auspicious Phoenix Bakery in Beijing's Shijingshan district.

The 24-year-old, who has Down syndrome, has been working at the bakery six days per week from 8 am till 5 pm for more than seven years. He earns about 2,000 yuan ($300) a month, the same as his able-bodied colleagues.

"I like working here. I can earn my own money, and I also have friends here," he said.

Personnel manager Lu Chang said the bakery has been working with organizations that provide vocational training and rehabilitation services for the intellectually disabled since 2010.

Auspicious Phoenix employs more than 20 intellectually disabled people in the capital, working alongside able-bodied members of staff. "We have about 280 branches across Beijing, which is a huge advantage because it allows us to employ people in the bakeries nearest their homes," Lu said.

Supported jobs

Before joining Auspicious Phoenix, Liu enrolled in the Supported Employment Program and received vocational training at Lizhi, a rehabilitation center and a vocational training school for the intellectually disabled in Beijing's southwestern suburbs.

Everyone on the program is assigned a mentor, who helps them to acquire basic work skills, select a suitable job and cope with any problems they face at work.

"At the beginning the mentors join them in the workplace, but they gradually reduce the frequency of their visits. After about six months the person can work independently," said Feng Lu, Lizhi's director.

The concept of supported employment originated in the United States in the 1970s and was later adopted in some European countries, Japan and regions outside the Chinese mainland, such as Hong Kong. Unlike the Chinese government's Aided Employment Policy - which allows the intellectually disabled to work shorter hours for less money - supported employment stresses integration with society and treats the intellectually disabled like able-bodied employees in terms of workload and pay.

According to a 2011 report by the World Labor Organization, "barriers to a person's participation in general community activities are not solely determined by their impairment, but arise in combination with elements of the environment", such as community attitudes.

"The goal of supported employment is to guarantee the employment rights of the intellectually disabled and help them adapt to society," Feng said.

Low rates

According to the Second National Census of the Disabled in 2006, the latest available statistics, the employment rate for intellectually disabled people was less than 10 percent, the lowest among all disabled groups. Experts estimate that the figure has not changed in the decade since.

Zhang Baolin, chairman of the China Association of Persons with Intellectual Disability and their Relatives, said more recent surveys conducted by NGOs also suggest that the rate is unchanged. "The figure is lower still if 'fake employment' is taken into consideration," he said, referring to the practice whereby intellectually disabled people receive a salary from employers but never leave their homes.

However, a survey conducted during the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) by Xu Jiacheng, former dean of the department of special education at Beijing Union University, showed that more than 80 percent of people ages 18 to 60 with intellectual disabilities were willing to work.

"In the end, most of them stay at home or go to welfare institutions when they graduate from special schools," Xu said.

The low employment rate is not unique to China. A report by the World Labor Organization said the circumstances of the intellectually disabled are "equally alarming" around the world, irrespective of culture or economic circumstances.

A 2006 survey by the Canadian Association for Community Living showed that 27 percent of people with intellectual disabilities were employed that year, lower than any other disabled group.

According to Zhang, the rate is low in a Chinese context. "Compared with Western countries, China's welfare system is not as mature, and a job means a lot to the intellectually disabled and their families," he said, adding that employment fulfills a psychological need for people in the group.

Zhang Zhenfei, head of the employment and poverty alleviation department of the China Disabled Person's Federation, said despite regulations to urge employers to take on more intellectually disabled people "the figure is much lower than for the physically disabled, which is around 40 percent".

In 2007, the State Council, China's Cabinet, passed the Regulation on the Employment of the Disabled which requires that businesses ensure that at least 1.5 percent of their employees are from disabled groups.

Employers who fail to meet the target must pay a variable sum to the Employment Security Fund for the Disabled. If a company has no disabled employees, the amount it pays is equal to the total salaries paid the previous year multiplied by the percentage of disabled employees stipulated by local governments.

Reluctance to recruit

Zhang Baolin, from the China Association of Persons with Intellectual Disability and their Relatives, said despite the incentive to be exempt from the fund, employers are still reluctant to recruit disabled people, especially those with intellectual disabilities, because of "safety concerns".

"To gain exemption, some employers pay disabled people a wage but ask them to stay at home, because the employers are responsible for their safety. Meanwhile, employers must educate able-bodied employees about equal rights and respect, which can be time-consuming," he said.

He added that blame also lies with some parents' concerns about the workplace adaptability of their disabled child and coworkers' prejudice against them.

Meanwhile, a number of policies are discouraging disabled people from entering the workplace. "In some cities, the disabled receive a monthly local government subsidy of about 2,000 yuan, but only if they have no other source of income. Given that the subsidy is about the same as the monthly wage, many decide not to work," he said.

An employee of the China Disabled Person's Federation, who preferred not to be named because his views are unconventional, said: "Compared with the physically disabled, the working abilities of people with intellectual disabilities vary greatly. Many are unfit for the workplace."

Xu, the special education professor, said support is crucial for those with the ability to work: "Few intellectually disabled people can keep their jobs without continuous instruction and assistance. This is where supported employment comes in."

Efforts expanded

To help more intellectually disabled people get jobs, the China Association of Persons with Intellectual Disability and their Relatives and other nonprofits are training more mentors and expanding the Supported Employment Program nationwide.

In 2014, the association began working with the International Labor Organization to train people with knowledge of psychology and social work as mentors for the intellectually disabled. "So far, about 400 are in place, and the number is expected to exceed 2,500 by 2020," Zhang Baolin said.

Feng, Lizhi's director, said the organization has been recruiting and training mentors since it was founded in 2000, and has expanded the program to five provinces, including Hunan, Shaanxi and Qinghai. About 90 people with intellectual disabilities have gained jobs with the help of their mentors. "We plan to expand the program," she said, adding that there's still room for development of the Supported Employment Program.

"The 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) is pressing for more employment mentors for the intellectually disabled, but it does not specify how to channel them to where they are most needed."

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