Invisible Millions: China’s Unnoticed Disabled People

Sixth Tone

3rd December 2017

Invisible Millions: China’s Unnoticed Disabled People

by Dai Wangyun

Dai Wangyun is a Ph.D. student at East China Normal University focusing on folk customs, body culture, and medical culture.

Today, 3rd December 2017, is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, an occasion that intends to put the spotlight on a group of over 1 billion individuals and accord them the same dignities, rights, and happiness that able-bodied people enjoy.

According to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), more than 85 million people identified themselves as living with disabilities on the 2010 national census. But in China’s public spaces, they are largely invisible. Few people actually use the braille buttons in the elevators, the wheelchair-friendly ramps at banks and post offices, the lanes with tactile paving for the visually impaired, or the accessible bathrooms in malls.

For some time, disabled people in China were referred to as canfei, a combination of two characters meaning “incomplete or deficient” and “useless.” From the 1990s onward, people started using the word canji, changing the latter character to one meaning “disease or sickness.” This term is still used today.

Canfei carries a strongly pejorative implication and is rightly no longer being used. However, the term canji is not perfect either, as it insinuates that disabled people have some kind of incurable ailment that renders them abnormal. Unfortunately, this is how many Chinese still view disability today.

As the disabled community has reframed the debate in human rights terms, though, alternative terminology has been proposed. More and more signs now describe disabled people as canzhang (replacing the second character with one meaning “obstacle or barrier”) or use a completely new phrase: shenxin zhang’ai, or “physically or mentally obstructed.”

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