Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated September 28, 2020
By Kim Ooi

Teaching in China with a disability

Can you teach in China with a disability?

I’m sure this is something that very few disabled people have ever thought about.

But with millions of disabled peopled not working in the UK alone, isn’t this a conversation worth having?

My background

As a baby, I had meningitis which developed into hydrocephalus.

In very simple terms, this is a buildup of fluid in the brain. The increased pressure on the brain can cause things like headaches and dizziness.

As a result, I had to undergo a series of operations when I was a child.

For the first 15 years of my life, its effects were minimal and I was a star pupil at school.

But by my mid-teens, the disability really started to hold me back. My exam performance began to suffer.

In 2006, having been through four jobs in nine years, I was finally referred to a work psychologist who sent me to rehab.

It was at rehab that the conclusion was reached that I’d never be able to cope with any kind of open employment.

They recommended that I be retired on disability grounds at the age of 33.

The problems I had due to my disability

As is the case with any disability or medical condition, hydrocephalus caused a number of problems in my working life.

These include:

  • A poor memory. I struggled to keep track of the current issues and events that were taking place, as well as changes to working practices.
  • Difficulty coping with abstract and ambiguous instructions and unpredictable situations.
  • Difficulty in making connections between new situations and previously gained knowledge, and an inability to synthesize information.
  • Difficulty in initiation. I don’t always realize what needs to be done unless someone points it out to me directly.
  • Some difficulties with social awareness and social interaction. I can get offended if ‘bossed around’ or told what to do and not to do.
  • I have a high frequency hearing impairment and this may have caused some comprehension difficulties.
  • A tendency towards rigid thinking and difficulty in dealing with change.

Luckily for me, not all doors had closed. I was able to teach in China with my disability.

How I succeeded in teaching in China with my disability

For a disabled person, the key to making a success out of any job is picking one where either their problems have no impact or where the effects can be minimized or eliminated.

I’ve been able to compensate for my poor memory by preparing very detailed lesson plans and PowerPoint presentations. For some simple role-plays or discussions, having a good memory isn’t essential.

Chinese universities tend to issue very few instructions, if any at all. Very often, oral English teachers are just given their class schedules and not much else.

Teaching with a disability in China

Could you teach in China with a disability?

In the TEFL industry, advice to solve practically any teaching issue can be obtained by the click of a mouse.

The pressure to always give the right answer, even when it isn’t obvious, isn’t applicable to TEFL, in my experience.

If you’re stuck, you can always tell the student that you’ll research their question and give them an answer the following week.

TEFL teachers usually work independently. Our work has no impact on our colleagues and their work has no impact on ours. A colleague usually wouldn’t have any reason to interfere in your work.

And, change happens slowly in China’s education system. You can use the same teaching methods year after year.

Living and working conditions in China

Work isn’t the only thing that you need to consider when deciding whether you can teach in China with a disability. Living and working conditions are also important.

For instance, the majority of living quarters in China are in the form of high-rise apartment blocks.

Some of these buildings don’t have elevators and would be inaccessible to people who are unable to climb up stairs, let alone wheelchair users.

Public infrastructure can also be an issue in China, particularly for wheelchair users. While in Western countries you’ll find sidewalks that have a ramp as it approaches the road, this may not be the case in China.

Chinese infrastructure not built for people with disability

Mind the gap! (Pictured: a road in rural Zhejiang province).

As an expat in China, you need to be capable of independent living.

This means being able to cook or buy your own meals, clean your apartment, do your own shopping and bathe and change your clothes without help.

With regard to severe disabilities, working in China would be virtually impossible.

For example, if you’re blind you wouldn’t be able to get your textbooks in Braille format.

And, guide dogs have only recently been given the green light in China.

What does the law say?

China doesn’t have a standalone law that forbids employment discrimination.

But there are provisions in other laws that work towards addressing the problem.

For example, in Chapter III (Fair Employment) of the Employment Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China, Article 29 states “No employment unit, when recruiting employees, shall discriminate against handicapped persons.”

Similarly, the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities has a chapter dedicated to employment.

You can read a translated copy of it here.

Disabled man with guide dog

China doesn't have a special anti-discrimination employment law.

In reality, however, schools in China don’t make the kind of reasonable adjustments to accommodate your disability that employers in the UK and other Western countries are compelled to do by law.

Medical restrictions

In order to apply for the Z visa that you’ll need to teach or work in China, there are several conditions that you must meet.

You’ll need to be a native English speaker, have a university degree and no criminal convictions.

You’ll also need to fill out a medical questionnaire and undergo a medical examination. You’ll need to declare if you’ve ever suffered from conditions like psychosis, polio or diphtheria.

If you’re HIV positive or suffer from AIDS or syphilis, you definitely won’t be able to get a Z visa for China.

China is basically trying to do two things – safeguard public security by barring anyone who might run amok and safeguard the health of its people by barring entry to those who carry infectious diseases.

Is teaching in China really a golden opportunity for disabled people?

When you have a disability, your life instantly becomes harder because you’re deprived of an essential function that able-bodied people take for granted.

If you’re a degree-qualified native English speaker and finding it difficult to obtain employment in your home country due to your disability, you might still be able to teach in China.

This is provided, of course, that you meet the criteria outlined above.

I managed to turn my life around by teaching in China. You can do so too.

I hope you got something out of my blog on teaching in China with a disability. You might also enjoy the one I wrote about the skills you need to be a university teacher in China.


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