An interview with Nadav Ben Simon: opening up a conversation, changing the mindset and educating the public are key to the social inclusion of people with disabilities

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In early July, China Development Brief reported on a special afternoon tea party held in Guangzhou. The tea party was centred around the theme of people with disabilities and their employment situation. Seeing organisations and businesses focus on and care for people with disabilities is encouraging and heart-warming, but in practice the employment of people with disabilities is a far more complicated issue. Concerning this matter, we interviewed Mr. Nadav Ben Simon, General Manager of the Inclusion Factory, to shed light on how to address problems of social inclusion in China. As a social enterprise located in Taicang, Jiangsu Province, the Inclusion Factory has been working on helping people with intellectual disabilities to integrate into the labour market and the wider society and community since 2015.

CDB: Thank you for joining us today for the interview, Nadav. It is a great pleasure. First of all, could you please briefly introduce the Inclusion Factory and your position within the organisation?

Nadav: Sure. The Inclusion Factory is a sheltered factory, which means it is a specially designed and managed working environment that allows people with intellectual disabilities to take part in production work. Basically, we are working with multinational companies, mostly from the automotive industry. We produce and assemble components that later go into cars. I joined the company when it first started in 2015. I am originally from Israel, I studied International Relations in university and after graduation, I found myself being interested in work that was a bit different from what I had learnt. I focused particularly on people who were underprivileged and had disabilities. Therefore, I practiced social work, and became a social worker myself for ten years before I came to China.

CDB: What was it about the Inclusion Factory that attracted you in the first place?

Nadav: I came to China following my wife, who studied in a university in Beijing. I travelled around the country, and after we decided to stay here for the foreseeable future, I started to look for jobs in China as a social worker, which was extremely difficult as a foreigner who did not speak Chinese. I was looking for something meaningful to do, meaningful in the sense it was similar to what I was doing before. Then I found out about this place when it was just about to open in Taicang, close to Shanghai. I found this project very interesting because I realised that after being in China for six months, I had not seen people with disabilities at all. I was really curious, so I asked people in universities about this, and I came to the understanding that disability is a very deep taboo in the society, a topic that is not openly discussed by the media, schools and among the people. So once I found out such a project was going to start in Taicang, I was very keen to take part in it. At that time, it was a great privilege to join a project like this. In Europe and other western countries, such projects, though still not enough, were already plenty, but doing this kind of project in China, although it might not be organised for the first time, would be much more challenging and interesting. That was why I joined the Inclusion Factory.

CDB: Was it a great challenge to hire people with disabilities in the Inclusion Factory?

Nadav: It was and still is a great challenge. It is not something that has already been solved. In any society, there is a percentage of people with disabilities within the population. In a big country like China, I assumed that I could encounter a lot of people with disabilities working in factories or in companies, but that was not and is still not the case. Later we came to understand that one of the biggest challenges of hiring people with disabilities was fake employment, which was very common in China. Companies in China are obligated by law to hire people with disabilities (1.5 for every 100 employees), otherwise they have to pay a fine. In practice, the most common solution in this circumstance was for companies across the country to register people with disabilities as their workers, but without these people actually going to work. This might be called a ‘win-win’ situation, because usually a person with disabilities is from a poor social and economic background, and when they register with a company they will be able to get some salary from the company’s social security payment scheme, while the company saves on its penalties. Such practices, though understandable, have caused obstacles for employers who genuinely want to hire people with disabilities, because they have already been “employed” with fake work. This is essentially not helping people with disabilities; They and their families still hold very low self-esteem and suffer from lack of confidence, and they may be discouraged from giving any job a try.

CDB: Indeed, this alleged “win-win” arrangement is not helping people with disabilities. They are still not able to work and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Nadav: For sure. This situation is only strengthening the stigma, because it is an incentive to still keeps people with disabilities at home. Also, it will not improve their social and economic condition, because they are seriously underpaid and are paid insufficient attention. It prevents a person with potential from participating in the labour market, having meaningful work and being included in the society. Nowadays, employment is a prominent way for a person to participate in a society, and a big proportion or even most of our valuable time is spent on our work. If we keep people with disabilities, who are a huge number, at home and away from work, because of some sort of disability they have, we then deny them a chance to take part in a very important side of life. They are also deprived of the chance to prove that they are able to work.

CDB: When talking about including people with disabilities into the work place, companies may expect a lot of difficult changes to be done within the organisation. However, reports have shown that changes to accommodate disabled people in the work place are not that difficult, and many companies have already been trying to create a friendly environment for those with special needs. But I assume that was not the case when the Inclusion Factory first started?

Nadav: It is still not the case as a matter of fact, although we are getting there. I think a very important distinction that should be made is that changes to the facilities are actually easier to carry out, however the change that should come first is to the mindset and the awareness. Unfortunately, as we mentioned earlier, disability is not a subject that is openly and widely discussed. For example, we still do not see much about people with disabilities in the media. People do not feel comfortable with this topic, and this is not only true in China, it is a global issue. People with disabilities in a way remind us, as healthier people, of our vulnerabilities, that we are not God and not in control. It is like when we go to the hospital and see people who are sick and dying, we do not feel very comfortable about dealing with them; we fear it. So, we usually put this topic aside and do not think about it, because that is the easy way to avoid it. But people with disabilities are just like us – they are people, they have dreams, they have potential and can be a very meaningful part of the society. But most of the time because of our fear, we push them away.

CDB: Absolutely true! Many great progresses started from changes in the mindset and attitudes. How do you think that the Inclusion Factory has contributed to this process of changing mindsets?

Nadav: The Inclusion Factory is not a huge organisation, but our goal is to set a benchmark, an example of how inclusion can be done with good partners; and we hope to support other organisations who would like to copy this model. We directly hire 34 people with disabilities, we train people with disabilities and help integrate them to work in our and other companies (we call it open market employment) and we offer consultations to companies that want to involve people with disabilities in their workforce. At first, when some companies visited us, they thought because their products needed to be of a high quality or because their work included complicated and even dangerous procedures, they could not give their work to the Inclusion Factory. But when more and more companies came to visit us, they were impressed by the projects. They wanted to do the same work and they wanted to give people with disabilities an opportunity in their organisations. The facility changes were always the first topic, and we gave them recommendations on how to do it. But after a while, we noticed that projects that were supported by the top management at the executive level were always slowed down by middle management, namely the people in operation. The reason for that was that they could not understand why their companies had chosen to hire people with disabilities and include them in their workforce. They worried that the production rate might be slowed down or a lot of inconvenient changes would have to be done to their working units.

In fact, not only in a company, but also in a society – unless we open up the discussion and talk about a company’s responsibility to include people with disabilities with the company’s management team and workers, changes will not come. We understand that an important part of this process is to allow companies to take actions, to raise awareness within the workforce and discuss strategies of inclusion that companies want to practice.

CDB: This surely opens the door for more things to be done.

Nadav: Yes, and at the end, you will find out that once we explain the values and meaning of doing this project, people who did not understand or support the project at first will become its strongest supporters. We are all humans, we all have shared emotions, and open conversations and discussions will trigger people’s empathy. As I have observed, in China there is no hatred towards people with disabilities, but rather, there is lack of understanding. If we expose people to the factual employment situation of people with disabilities and make it part of the discourse, the problem can be improved. After people start participating in the conversation, they might remember their own or their family’s experience with people with disabilities, and eventually, they will be proud of their companies for doing this and become very engaged.

CDB: We mentioned the term “inclusion” a lot of times in our conversation. What does “inclusion” mean to you?

Nadav: Equality. Because exclusion means that due to our ignorance, we exclude and discriminate other groups of people because of their colour, religion or abilities. But that is wrong. Inclusion is a basic right for human beings, it is equal to social justice.

CDB: Given the definition of “inclusion”, how do you think we can approach and eventually reach the goal of including everybody in the society, community and labour market?

Nadav: I think the key is always education. We should start educating all levels of society and most importantly, we should put an emphasis on future generations. This change will take time, it is not some change that an individual alone can make happen. Each one of us should talk to our children, colleagues and relatives. We have to confront this taboo, we must understand that people with disabilities are doing nothing wrong, they just have different capabilities. Once this topic is openly discussed and becomes part of the educational system, once it is accepted as a fact, then we can improve the situation.

CDB: Throughout the years you have been working in China, what changes in the mindset and attitudes towards people with disabilities have you noticed, if there are any?

Nadav: There are. But for this question, we have to take a step back and understand that the society generally perceives people with disabilities from three perspectives. The first one is the traditional perspective. There is a way of thinking according to which a person has a disability because they have done something wrong towards Heaven in this life or in the previous life, and then they are reincarnated as a person with a disability in this life. The second one is the medical perspective. It is a conception of a disability as an illness that can be cured. But that is normally not the situation, particularly with people with intellectual disabilities, because it is a condition from birth and mostly cannot be cured or improved. The next perspective is social, where we talk about inclusion, accepting people with disabilities as they are and seeing them as an important part of our society. The more diverse our society is, the more ideas we will have, and the more we will come up with innovative ways. China is moving very fast from the traditional way of seeing people with disabilities towards the medical perspective, and this is a revolution that needs to happen. In places where living conditions are better, people are moving towards the social perspective – inclusion. That is why NGOs are open to practices that focus on people with disabilities, that is why the government is doing more and more work. There are parts of China which are more aligned with the traditional mindset, but fundamentally it is a global problem, even in the most advanced cities and countries you have people who think that way. I do see a significant shift in attitudes happening in China, and during the past five, six years of working in this country, I have seen this topic being discussed more often, the practice of helping and caring for people with disabilities being carried out more often by NGOs and issues being more structurally addressed by the government. Things are indeed improving.

CDB: May I ask you to share an interesting story from the years of practicing in China with us?

Nadav: I can tell you one story that I am extremely proud of. Once we had an employee with an intellectual disability, a young lady who was working in the Inclusion Factory for four years. At some point, we thought she was ready to go and work for a regular company with ordinary workers in a normal working environment. We found a company that was willing to offer her an opportunity, but we had to remember that within that social context it was not a normal thing. Because the people who she would work with would say ‘Wait a minute, how can this lady with an intellectual disability do the same work as me?” There was so much prejudice and doubt against people with disabilities. To cope with this expected situation, we then started a long process of seminars and discussions with the future colleagues of this young lady. In the end, we successfully included her within this company’s production line and she became an equal, respected member. Although she was different, she was well accepted because of proper preparation and awareness-raising education, through which people agreed to put prejudice and doubt aside and give her a chance. In fact, her performance was so good that after six months, she was promoted to be a quality inspector, which means she was inspecting the work that was done by regular workers. Her colleagues accepted and respect her authority as an inspector; now they saw her as someone with a special value – she was able to be attentive to details and concentrate on work.

CDB: What kind of preparation did you do to help this young lady integrate in the company and her future colleagues to accept and respect her at work?

Nadav: Again, it all goes back to the discourse and to bringing awareness. For the preparation, we had trainers who keenly engaged with people and brought the topic of the employment of people with disabilities into the discussion. For example, the trainers asked the lady’s future colleagues to stop for a moment and think “what if I was a person with a disability? Would I want to be accepted into the society and how?” In a way, we have to make people step out of their comfort zone and reflect on these questions. We should realise that as human beings, we all share some common ground and feelings, and discussions like this can trigger something within that will move us to show empathy towards individuals with disabilities. Life has already been difficult enough for them, we should not give them more hardships. To have a discussion about people with disabilities and realise that we are all equal is the key to the solution.

CDB: Thank you very much for this insightful interview. Also thank you for being a part of an important change and making this society a better place.

Nadav: Thank you for having me.


This interview was conducted by Isabella Jingwen Zhong on 18th August 2020. 

In Brief

The Inclusion Factory is a social enterprise in Jiangsu which helps people with intellectual disabilities enter the Chinese job market. We spoke to its general manager, Nadav Ben Simon, about his work and the factors that are making it hard for people with disabilities to gain meaningful employment.
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