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In 1999, Mi Zou, a young female student, was admitted to a top university in Beijing, China. A year later, she was in a vehicle accident on a family trip. Mi’s mother died from the accident and Mi herself suffered a severe spinal cord injury. Mi was then informed by the university that she could continue her studies only if she recovered and would be able to walk again. Two years after the accident Mi remained in a wheelchair and had exhausted different options for continuing her studies. According to university policy, Mi was ineligible to continue her education due to her physical condition and as a result was forced to drop out.

Disability in Higher Education

Higher education is considered a prerequisite for success in the labor market in the era of the knowledge society. China underwent a great expansion of higher education enrollment starting in 1999, the same year Mi was admitted as a young college freshman. Today it is even more crucial for people to obtain higher education credentials than it was in 1999. The tradition of education as a means of social mobility is embedded in the Chinese way of thinking and results in a tendency to invest heavily in it.

Since the late 1990s, the higher education system in China has experienced a process of rapid massification witnessing continued and unprecedented enrollment growth. The gross enrollment ratio of participation in higher education of 15 percent in 2003 climbed to 40 percent by 2015. From 2000 to 2010, the number of higher education institutions doubled, from 1,041 to 2,358.

While the number of students admitted into higher education reached 6.85 million in 2012 only 8,363 people with disabilities (PWD) were admitted that year.  This presents a striking contrast considering that people with disabilities account for 6.34 percent of China’s 1.3 billion population. While it is possible that there are students with undisclosed disabilities included in the 6.85 million, PWD remain hugely underrepresented in Chinese higher education. Worse yet, for those millions of admitted students, acquiring a disability during college can also end one’s right to continue enrollment in higher education.

Gender and Education

The expansion of Chinese higher education along with the country’s success in expanding primary and secondary attendance in recent decades has brought about new opportunities for girls and women. Like many other more developed countries, women in China represent larger percentages of education completion at all education levels. By 2012, Chinese women made up half of all undergraduate students and almost half of all master degree students. Women students are beginning to outnumber men in undergraduate programs even though men outnumbered women by about 33 million in the population as a whole by 2014.

Despite the evidence of women faring better generally in higher education, girls and women with disabilities remain at a disadvantage at all levels compared to both their female and male peers without disabilities. In 2015, among all graduates at all education levels with disabilities, females accounted for only 34 percent of that cohort.

Women with disabilities in higher education include those with disabilities present before enrolling as well as those who acquired a disability (due to an accident or medical condition) after enrolling at a postsecondary institutions. Though available data are limited, one can confidently predict that among the 8,363 students with disabilities who were admitted into higher education in 2012, a small percentage will be women.

Ableism and Sexism

“Ableism” is defined as discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities, as well as the ideas, practices, institutions, and social relations that presume able-bodied-ness. As a result, people with disabilities are often marginalized and largely invisible “others”. Ableism views people with disabilities as inferior, less valuable, sometimes even less than human. Ableist views and comments can be condescending and often view people with disabilities as worthy of pity. China is a profoundly ableist society. People with disabilities are largely invisible in public spheres and too often excluded from social inclusion due to long-standing infrastructure and attitudinal barriers and often seen as persons presenting inconvenience and burdens to society. Sadly, many infants with disabilities are abandoned at birth. It is estimated that about 98 percent of abandoned children in China may have disabilities.


Girls and women with disabilities in China are vulnerable to a double prejudice that favors men and able-bodied individuals. They are enrolled at all educational levels at much lower rates than their male peers with disabilities and certainly at lower participation rates than the able-bodied age cohort. Subsequently, this group is hugely underrepresented in Chinese higher education.

It is important that educators insist on equitable access for all historically marginalized population, but especially girls and women with disabilities, a sector too frequently overlooked. 


Luanjiao Aggie Hu is a doctoral student at the  University of Maryland, College Park


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