Thursday, May 27, 2010

Blind school in China trains students for new economy

From the Toronto Sun. In the picture, Wang Qun, 20, and two other students listen to a lecture on Chinese traditional medicine.

SANHE, China —- When Zhang Cheng lost his sight at age 14, seated in a classroom in his second year of junior high, his immediate reaction was rage.

“I couldn’t see the world,” says Zhang, now 33. “So I thought, ‘Why should the world see me?’ ”

For three months he hid himself away in a shed near his family’s apartment, while his parents feared the worst: suicide.

But with careful coaxing from his parents, Zhang resisted and today has emerged as a champion of some of this country’s most vulnerable people — the poorest of China’s poor blind.

Home to nearly 17 million blind people, China has at least 30,000 blind children without access to education at all, according to figures from the China Disabled Persons’ Federation.

But here in this suburban community about an hour’s drive east of Beijing, Zhang is working hard to change that.

He runs a private school — free of charge — that equips blind students with a skill to last a lifetime: the art of medical massage, the rough equivalent of physiotherapy, steeped in the teachings of Chinese traditional medicine.

As China’s economy continues to roar with growth rates of more than 10 per cent, Zhang wants to ensure the blind don’t get left behind. He wants them to have a piece of the pie, too. But he doesn’t want it handed to them. He knows from his experience as a blind person that you’ve got to earn it.

“What we’re really teaching here is self respect,” says Zhang, a stocky man with a winning smile. “That and self-reliance.”

They’re the values on which Zhang built his own success, against all odds.

He lost his sight the morning of Nov. 15, 1990, in his hometown of Xingtai, Hebei province, “in the blink of an eyelash,” he says.

Adding to his frustration was the fact doctors never determined why.

After a year of relearning every basic thing — how to walk, how to draw a bath, how to wash his clothes — Zhang enrolled in a three-year program to learn traditional medicine and massage, a vocation the government was then promoting for blind people.

School fees were steep, taking one-third of his parents’ annual income. But Zhang knew he would pay them back.

Today, he has done that and more.

Graduating at 18 — and against everyone’s advice — Zhang opened his own clinic in a closet-sized space just big enough for two beds and a desk.

He has never looked back. Today he runs 16 clinics with more than 200 employees. But more importantly, he’s principal of the Blind People’s Medical Massage Middle School, which he founded single-handedly in 1997, and continues to fund to this day.

He began with just 11 students.

“The parents were quite suspicious at the beginning,” says Zhang. “They thought, ‘This school is free? What kind of a school could that be?’ ”

But Zhang understood the burden the fees placed on parents. He knew that for many kids a school without fees meant the difference between getting an education and changing their destinies, or getting nothing at all.

He worked long hours at his clinic — sometimes 20-hour days — to fund his dream.

Today, close to 1,500 students from across China have graduated from the three-year course, from Xinjiang and Tibet in the west, to Hainan in the south and Heilongjiang province in the northeast.

Every year there’s a waiting list. The school can handle only 100 students at a time. Graduates get a government-recognized diploma and win jobs almost immediately.

But the school is not easy and not every one passes.

And as each freshman class learns, there are attitude adjustments to be made. Many come with a chip on their shoulder, firm in their belief that society is unfair to them. And perhaps that’s no surprise; prejudice does seem rooted in the language. Of the two Chinese characters most often used to identify the physically challenged, and which roughly translate as “disabled,” the first character means “incomplete” or “broken,” the second, means “illness.”

Increasingly, the preferred phrase is canzhang ren, which means, “physically challenged people.”

Each year the first class begins with a stirring welcome from Principal Zhang, which starts off appearing to speak directly to their anger.

Zhang steps to the podium and poses a question.

“Everyone,” he calls out, “does society discriminate against us blind people?”

“Yes!” the class responds in a single voice.

“And should society be allowed to discriminate against us blind people?” he presses.

“No! No they shouldn’t!” comes the reply.

Then Zhang pauses for effect, letting their words linger. Suddenly, he says, “Yes — they should discriminate against us.”

Invariably the class falls silent until some student dares to stand up.

“But Principal Zhang, aren’t you a blind person yourself?”

Zhang confirms that he is.

“But I want you to think about something,” he says. “If a healthy 18- or 19-year-old depends on his parents, stays home, does nothing, won’t people discriminate against him? Any such ‘normal’ person will be looked down upon, too, if they don’t contribute to society.”

And with that begins an education; Zhang wants his graduates to be respected — not pitied.

The school isn’t much to look at. Located on two hectares along a dusty, rutted road, its plaster buildings are worn and weathered. This used to be a local high school. But as the economy improved, the school was closed and the students moved on.

Where others saw abandoned buildings, however, Zhang envisioned his dream.

“Conditions here are hard,” admits 20-year-old first-year student Wang Kun, who sleeps in a dorm with eight other male students. “The equipment is basic and the hours long. But the school has a great reputation and everyone here is eager to learn.”

Some students in his dorm rise at 2 or 4 a.m. to do extra study, says Wang.

Each day begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m., when the electricity is shut off.

Nearby in Zhang’s sunlit office, a framed Chinese saying hangs over his desk: “Great kindness is like water.”

Water can clean and nourish, a friend of Zhang’s explains, and over time, it can also alter the shape of things.

As spring’s first forsythia blooms outside in the courtyard, Zhang is shaping futures here.

Every grateful student knows it.