A mixed disabled and able-bodied couple enjoy a home-cooked dinner in their cosy Beijing apartment. Liu Hong, deftly picks up a dumpling and pops it into her husband’s mouth with a warm smile. “My husband is my treasure”, she says. But it’s not Mr. Hong who is disabled, his wife, Liu Hong was born with spina bifida and has been confined to a wheelchair since birth.
As she grew into a woman during the mid 80’s and her parents grew older, Liu Hong’s family increasingly worried about her future, especially her marriage. This was during China’s reform period, where profit and self-sufficiency started to replace the collective, and China’s disabled population faced new vulnerabilities in an era where the state would no longer provide.
“When I was 20, my aunt asked me if I wanted a boyfriend, I said fine, then a few boys started to visit. My husband was among them, I didn’t notice him initially as there were many others, but he kept visiting and slowly we got to know each other. I found him very kind, but also very shy.” Said Liu Hong with a bashful smile, “I’m lucky to have him with me”.
Marriage remains out of reach for many of China’s 85 million disabled people.
While Liu Hong has been lucky in love, marriage remains out of reach for many of China’s 85 million plus disabled. In 1989, the year Liu Hong married just 4% of China’s total population aged 30-44 had never married, but for China’s disabled population, the number of unmarried people was 25%.
Figures have shifted today, in 2006 23% of the disabled population had never married while marriage rates for the general population have fallen. What’s perhaps more shocking is the degree that disabled men are disadvantaged, in 1989 45% of disabled men in China remained unmarried, in 2006 the figure was 36%. For most remaining single is not their choice.
The fact remains that disabled people all over the world looking to find intimacy, sex, love or marriage face multiple barriers from social discrimination and exclusion to a lack of physical access. The Chinese disabled population face specific hurdles, and this project aims to increase awareness and create some discussion between the disabled population themselves and wider society.
China’s disabled have seen progress in equal rights to work and education, but personal life lags behind
In 1988, the year before Liu Hong married, Deng Pufang, son of China’s great reformer Deng Xiaoping formed The China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF). Pufang himself became paraplegic after jumping through a window to escape the Red Guards. The Federation catalysed the improvement of rights and legislation for China’s disabled community.
Due, in large part to the advocacy work of disabled organisations, social attitudes have radically evolved since the 1980’s, education and employment opportunites have imporved too. However when it comes to love, relationships and marriage, things are more complex and attitudes are slower to change. Of course, the disabled community is not a single entity, and issues differ radically depending on factors such as whether the person is affected by an intellectual or physical disability and the specific type and degree of disability. In China, conditions differ for disabled communities in top-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai and smaller cities. For the most part, the situation for China’s rural disabled population lags far behind. Gender is yet another factor.
See the gallery below to hear some individual’s stories about disabled marriage and relationships:
“I am disabled, but I am happy, and I am very grateful for the experiences I shared with my husband” Mrs. Zhang has Cerebral Palsy and was happily married for over 30 years before her husband sadly passed away three years ago. The couple met in a charity home for the disabled when they were young, but both sets of parents were bitterly again the marriage. “Finally we decided to marry secretly, I even broke connections with my mother”.
Liu Hong has Sina Bifida and while she can’t move around freely, this doesn’t hamper her outgoing personality and she loves to visit nature with friends. She says the years have brought the couple even closer together. “I think of him not only as my husband but also my brother, with him by my side, I live life like a child".
Mr. Hu works at a Beijing NGO building new a media voice for China’s disabled. He’s found a loving relationship but is struggling with family pressures. “Her parents don’t agree with our relationship because of my blindness, she loves and trusts me, I am also confident about my ability to support the family”. The couple is still dating.
A ‘charity approach’ rather than an advocacy approach to disability
Michelle Wang, Rights and Inclusion officer at China’s Handicap International, says that there are positive movements “Disability issues are being talked about on a national scale, It’s much better than 20 or 30 years ago, back then the Chinese word for disability was can fei’”. ‘Can fei’ literally translates to useless”. Today’s term for the disabled is now ‘can ji’, which can be translated more directly as disabled.
Michelle points out that while the terminology change is a big step forward, attitudes and perceptions of disability are still behind the times, “There’s a ‘charity approach’ rather than an advocacy approach to disability, which creates problems; disability may no longer seen as ‘useless’ but it’s still considered a weakness.
Michelle explains that when this ‘charity approach and attitude’ mixes with China’s traditional attitudes toward family, problems compound. “It’s important to consider sex, love, relationship and marriage issues for the disabled community in the broader Chinese context”.
Traditional Chinese Confucian marriage values are based on patriarchal lineage, marriage was and often still is, considered a union of two families rather than two individuals, which means parents are highly influential in their children’s partner choice.
Zhang Wei from the Enabling Disability Institute, (EDI) an NGO focusing on intellectual disabilities says:
Zhang explains that parents simply don’t attach any real importance to personal relationships, “They prioritise the rehabilitation of their children, then education and jobs. Most parents think that it’s not an urgent issue and something they can always do later”. But it seems for many, later is too late, or turns into never.
“We provide people with strong psychological support before they enter the stage of marriage, we also let people understand that they also have the right to enjoy marriage, but that’s all we can do for now, as marriage is an issue that involves not only two people but also the two clans.”
Michelle says that most of her disabled friends face big challenges to date, and especially to meet families to establish a marriage or relationship. “People still treat disability as a negative thing and view the disabled as people who need to be taken care of, unable to find a job, and so financially unstable”.
Sadly, in most cases, there is a reality to this perception - poverty levels among China’s disabled are dire, according to CDPF research in 2008, among the 30 million people living in poverty in China, 80% of them are disabled.
Luna Nan, communications officer at HI, explains the knock on effects of disability; “First, it affects education, which in turn impacts employment, financial situation, and confidence levels too.” Until there is greater equality at the fundamental education stage, things are unlikely to change.
Even those who fight the odds and achieve successful careers still need to counter stereotypes and discrimination. Mr Hu, a clerk at an NGO is blind and has found a loving relationship. However so far, the parents of his girlfriend, who is able-bodied, are having trouble accepting the relationship. “Her parents don’t agree with our relationship just due to my blindness. Actually, she loves and trusts me, and I’m confident of my ability to support the family, but…” Mr Hu struggles to finish. He and his girlfriend are still dating but so far her parents have not been persuaded.
See the gallery below to hear some individual’s stories about disabled marriage and relationships:
For China’s older generation like Mr Zhang, it was especially hard to resist social and parental pressure. “Back then I was already considered an older unmarried man, my parents forced me to marry. People back then tended to obey their parents”. He married at 29 but says he and his wife have little in common and barely communicate.
Mr and Mrs Xu, both visually impaired are married and recently celebrated the birth of their first grandchild. “I had to abandon education after high school, my disability has changed the path of my life, but I am lucky to have my husband with me, even though we cannot see each other clearly any more”.
Mr. Pan, a Paralympic swimmer met his wife also a disabled swimmer in training. “We’ve been married for three months, we know each from our youth and as we are both disabled, we understand each other, and have grown together, so there were no obstacles when we finally entered the marriage”. Pan adds that social prejudice against disabled still exists, however and thinks that it may have been more difficult for him to find a partner under other circumstances.
Gender is another critical factor. “Women encounter different pressures, parents from a high social economic background will typically help their daughter to find an able-bodied man, but perhaps someone older or from the poorer rural regions, It’s more like they are invited to care for their daughter”. Michelle says that well educated, urban residents have the strength and self-determination to resist. But for lower income families, especially from the countryside, it’s different story. “A daughter is often considered a ‘burden’ so they would just prefer to marry the daughter off. Parents may say fine Okay marry, no matter who”
Mr Su from Shenyang Disabled Person’s Federation (SDPF), echoes this point. “Some people form a marriage, but there’s no emotional communication between the couple, it is just a way to reassure their parents, or to make life easier. Their marriages have anything but love”. Often times he says those marriages are not even certified.
60-year-old Mr Zhang, a physically disabled carpenter said his parents pushed him into marriage at 29. “They just wanted me to fulfil my so-called responsibility”. Sadly he regrets the marriage, he says he and his wife, who is also physically disabled barely communicate.
The future for China’s current disabled population is slowly looking brighter, the internet and new technology are new channels for everyone to meet, and this has impacted the disabled community too, bringing huge benefits, especially for those that are more housebound.
Michelle says that online dating is really popular for the disabled community. “They have their own online communities and social channels” she explains. “But again, this is in the first their cities, the case for those in lower tier cities or the countryside is very different. They tend to be much more isolated with less community or support”.
While in Europe and America dating websites specifically aimed at the disabled community have sprung up, and do not go without their controversies. They haven’t taken off hugely in China but there is at least one website operating www.hunlian100.com. Many users on the site hail from China’s smaller cities, so this could be a positive step forward for communities from less urbanised regions.
Disabled people's organisations are also becoming more active, sometimes with special events aimed at bringing people together for friendship and possibly more. Equality in love and relationships won’t happen inside a bubble of course
Removing barriers means starting at the beginning, with primary education. However, according to the CDPF more than 90,000 disabled children had no access to schooling in 2012. The government has made huge efforts, even funding a new separate special education system. But this keeps people segregated, and most of China’s disabled population are physically rather than intellectually disabled and with proper services could function in integrated schools.
When it comes to disabled dating in China the issues are multi-dimensional and require a multi-pronged approach. The government and the public need to work to create an environment that helps to removes obstacles to the disabled at all levels.
This is an ongoing multimedia journalism project by Peijing Wang, a student on Beijing - Bolton’s www.immj-ma.org, Peijin is disabled himself and interested in hearing from you. Do you have a story to share? Please write to peijin008(at)sina(dot)cn