With the publication of the National College Entrance Exam results for 2020, it was reported that there were five students with visual impairments who took the exam (commonly known as the gaokao) across the country, located in the provinces of Shanxi and Anhui, the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Municipality of Shanghai. One of them, a student from Anhui Province named Ang Ziyu who was taking the gaokao for the second time, gained an excellent grade of 635, allowing him access to top-level universities.
In 2015, China’s Ministry of Education announced a rule that braille exam papers should be offered for students with visual impairments. However, reality begs the question of why, since the rule was established in 2015, there have been less than ten students with visual impairments who actually take the gaokao every year. Where are all the other youngsters with visual disabilities?
Before answering this question, it is worth exploring if there is much difference between braille and ordinary exam papers for the gaokao. The truth is that there is not much difference in terms of the level of difficulty. Students with visual impairments do not enjoy any special credits that can be added to the exam result. However, they have to touch the paper in order to read the questions, and so it takes them longer to finish. Because of this, students with visual impairments are given more time to finish the exam compared to ordinary students. In addition, exam papers for students with visual impairments have bigger fonts and students are allowed to use facilitating tools such as magnifiers, desk lights, typoscopes and braille pens.
The first braille exam paper for the gaokao appeared in 2014. Li Jinguang became the first student with a visual impairment to take the exam using braille. Since then the door for students with visual disabilities to take the exam has been open, and a number of those who have taken it have been reported to gain excellent grades.
Then why is the number of students with visual disabilities still very small? According to experts, most of the students with visual disabilities who go to school and plan to take the gaokao are in fact studying in ordinary schools with peers who do not have visual problems. Unfortunately, most ordinary schools do not provide facilities to aid students with special needs, and students with visual disabilities have to depend on magnifiers, desk lights or even nothing at all to help them read. Because of this reality, students in ordinary schools normally do not understand braille, nor are they able to attend the exams using braille, since training in reading and using the braille alphabet takes a long time and students do better if they learn it from an early age.
There are students who study in special schools for the blind and are trained to read and use braille, however it is very likely that they cannot receive the same quality of education, teaching materials and teaching facilities as they would in ordinary schools. Nowadays there are merely eight schools for the blind that provide education at the senior high school level. Students from those schools may find that the exam is simply too difficult compared to the education they receive. Besides, instead of choosing a major based on their talents and interests in university, students who graduate from schools for the blind are mostly encouraged to apply for the Departments of Special Education within universities and may find it difficult to be accepted by other departments.
Cai Cong, Director of the Shanghai Youren Foundation, argues there are two other factors that restrict students with disabilities, including visual disabilities, from taking the National Entrance Exam and entering universities. First of all, attitudes towards people with disabilities may make their families reluctant to send them out to ordinary or even special schools. What’s more, the lack of consideration for the special needs of such students in ordinary schools does not encourage them to pursue higher education. Secondly, there are not sufficient facilities in most of the universities in China to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Apart from the teaching facilities, there may not be corridors, lifts, bathrooms and accommodation that are specially designed for disabled students. This is also a critical reason that causes many disabled students to refuse to enter universities.
In order to help more students with disabilities to get a good education and enter university, the government needs to pay attention to how policies focusing on serving disabled students are put into practice and whether they are implemented effectively. At the same time, schools and universities should create a friendly environment for such students to study, live and socialise, so they can become equal and respected members of the community.