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The inspiring disability rights activist Stephen Hallett had a sit-down with Toonari Post to talk about his work in China and his own journey through life. This is the first part of our interview.
Toonari Post (TP): You first came to China in your 20′s, and have spent more than two decades of your life in China as a documentary director and a chair of China Vision. What first caused you to become interested in China?
Stephen Hallett (SH): I first became interested in China because I lived in South Africa. I grew up in the UK and South Africa. When I was living in South Africa, it was still during the years of apartheid. Every day I went to school and I used to pass a Chinese school, which was in Cape Town, and see the Chinese characters over the school’s entrance. Although I couldn’t read them at all, I got very interested in Chinese language and also in the Chinese school which was in a “white people’s area,” which was very unusual under the apartheid system. And another reason is that, in the 1970s, we did not know much about China. China was very a romantic notion and it was politically very different. South Africa was very Right wing, and China was very Left wing. And I was looking for a political alternative. So for two reasons, I started teaching myself Chinese as a teenager, studied Chinese at Leeds University, and in 1980 I came to China for a one year exchange.
TP: Can you tell me about the state of disability rights in China briefly? And what should the new Chinese government do for disabled people in order to realize its ‘China Dream’ in a real way?
SH: It is said that there are over 85 million people with disabilities in China, which consists of nearly 6% of the whole population. Yet, they are still a marginalized group in China. Once the (Chinese) government labels you as having a certain disability, your entire life can be determined by that label. For example, if you are a blind, you need to go a separate special school for blind people and then become a masseur, which is almost the only career choice for most of blind people. Although the government is putting a lot of money into special education, it is not putting the same energy into social inclusion. So even if the government can improve their (the disabled people’s) lives somehow through special education, they are separated from mainstream society, which causes social segregation and discrimination against disabled people.
But I cannot say it is same all over China, because social attitudes to the disabled people vary. For example, in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, people are less prejudiced against disabled people and often take good care of them, and that comes partly from religion or their attitudes to life. But in many parts of China, especially amongst Han Chinese, disabled people are highly discriminated against, so (their) families may be embarrassed or ashamed to have a disabled child. So what they do is to lock the child at home, and they become very disconnected from mainstream society.
The ‘China Dream’ is different from the ‘American Dream’. The ‘American Dream’ is mainly about individuals. But I think the ‘China Dream’ is based on the idea of people expressing a dream which the government agrees with. Dreams are good and important. But I am afraid that the ‘China Dream’ could be about “How can I serve the nation”, which actually means “How should I serve the Communist Party.”
I think it is very important for disabled people to express what they really feel. But very often, they feel that it is very difficult to communicate their ideas to society. So the idea of the ‘China Dream’ can be a bad thing to them, because they might feel that they have to say “Everything is getting better, I want to be a useful citizen.” But be useful to whom? So, I think what the government really needs to do is to listen what they really want firstly, and acknowledge them as one part mainstream society. One of the ways to help disabled people to become independent and professional is through inclusive education. This can increase the visibility of disabled people in society. If there are more disabled people who are doing professional and interesting things, it can change social attitudes and increase social awareness toward disabled people.
TP: As Chen GuangCheng, a Chinese human rights activist, has widely become known since last year, this has drawn much more attention to disability rights in China than before. Do you think this event has encouraged people to participate in protection of disability rights more than before?
SH: Chen Guangcheng is an important figure in Chinese history and politics. What Cheng Guangcheng has done is not just about disability rights, more about legal rights, lack of access to justice in China, which is actually closely related to disability rights. And I know many disabled people in China, especially blind people, who are very inspired by him. I think that in the long run what he has done will have a very big affect. But in the short term, which is for the next few years, it may have little affect.
It is true that more people in the West are aware of some of the real problems of human rights issues in China (because of Chen Guangcheng). But I do not think many people in the West have actually understood how they can change this situation. It is not just about attacking the Chinese government or making kind of legal cases, it is actually about saying that we have to work inside of China with independent groups to build up the capacity of NGOs or DPOs. We have to strengthen civil society, and that is a long process. So I hope that more international organizations actually get involved in supporting civil society work. And I think that Guangcheng understands this, so what he is doing is very important.
TP: Can you tell me a story of one of the most impressive moments during your work in China Vision?
SH: Okay, here is one story. In 2007, we were carrying out a project called ‘Mobile Advice Clinics’ with Beijing One Plus One, to help disabled people in poor remote villages. In the Clinic, we had a Chinese lawyer, personal counselor and an eye doctor.
On one occasion we were in Datong, Shanxi, and a couple came in with a child, a boy of about eleven, who was blind. And they asked, “What advice can you give for our child?” The boy seemed to have very low self-esteem. He was sitting ‘under’ the table and did not talk at all. Our personal counselor, a wonderful woman, asked the parents, “Why is your child not going to school?” “Of course, he cannot go to school, he is blind!” the parents answered. The counselor said, “According to Chinese law, every child should go to school. If he cannot go to a mainstream school in village, he can go to special school in Datong for free.” But the poor peasant parents said, “But we cannot afford the transport.” “Ok, we can help you.” And the counselor turned to the boy and said, “Come out, Xiao Li (小李). What is your biggest dream?” and he suddenly said, “I want to go to school.” And the parents could not believe it, because he never said it ever. So we bridged the local Disabled Person`s Federation (DPF) and Xiao Li`s family over the financial aid, and he went to school next year.
I always remember that. It was a simple thing, but it has confirmed for me is that information is very important for disabled people since it can change their lives for the better.
TP: What is your core principle as a chair of China Vision?
SH: “Nothing About Us Without Us” is my core principle. This is a famous slogan of the disability movement around the world. Other people cannot make decisions for disabled people. For me and China Vision, it is very important to listen and respect the people that we work with, especially my Chinese partners and the local DPOs, and to understand what they want and need. I also discuss all projects and decisions with our Board of Trustees at China Vision. We are a very small organization, but we think very deeply about what we do.
I think three things are very important as a leader – being open-minded to new ideas, listening to the people that I work with, and respecting everyone. I think respect is all about communication, but it is also about questioning yourself to assess your own work by discussing it with other people. Moreover, I think you have to be ethical about the purpose of your organization, especially when you do charity work. For example, maybe 95% of our money goes directly into our projects across China. We don’t use much money for administration, except paying for one staff member in Beijing, because our purpose is to help disabled people in China and we are all volunteers.
You can read the final part of our Stephen Hallett feature here.