10/06/2012 17:48 BST | Updated 10/08/2012 06:12 BST

Educating Visually Impaired Children in China

In the Western world, we take for granted the provisions in place for educating children with special needs. In rural China, however, thousands of children suffering from blindness and visual impairment (VI) are unable to keep up with their peers. There are an estimated 70,000 school-aged blind children in China - most living in rural areas and villages. The schools which offer special education for VI children are predominantly located in the major cities hundreds or thousands of miles away. A casual visitor to Shanghai, an incredible economic powerhouse of a city, might wonder how such a plight could be possible.

Fortunately, a number of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are striving to provide equal educational opportunities for these children in the hope that China's developing interior provinces can eventually share in the prosperity of the richer coastal provinces.

Hu Mei works for the Golden Key Research Centre for the Visually Impaired, a Beijing-based charity whose mission is to provide educational assistance to VI children in China's poorest provinces.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day," says Mei, quoting a Chinese proverb. "Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

A friend of Mei's, Mary Ma, was struck blind at the age of seven after contracting glaucoma. She initially found it difficult to cope with her condition, but the kindness of her father helped her to eventually overcome her despair.

"I really hated my low position," says Mary. "So my father and I planted a seed in my heart: 'Blind people also can make a big difference'."

At the age of 15, she decided on three things: she didn't want to be a burden on her family; she didn't want family and friends to worry about her; and she wanted to give something back to society.

At the start of 2012 Mary set up the Seven Color Flower Intervention Research Center for the Visually Impaired. This young NGO provides guidance to blind children and their parents and advocates equal educational access.

Mary believes education is essential for development.

"Once the mindset has changed, the big changes follow," she says. "The state should give more help to NGOs."

The government already provides some educational assistance. The Chunlei Plan, for example, is a state initiative which aims to improve educational opportunities for girls.

Mei concurs that "more help should be given by the state by all means", but notes how effective NGOs can be.

"Organisations like Golden Key have years of experience in specific areas," she says. "Effective NGOs may raise funds from the rich and make full use of the resources to reduce poverty through professional and transparent management. I guess it's a good way to keep a balance in the community."

Xu Jia (Anita) is Programme Officer at the International Study Centre of Renmin University, one of China's top universities. Anita believes that good education early on can provide students with the necessary skills to enter China's competitive university system.

"Education can broaden the horizons of students and bring them to a new world of knowledge," she says. "They can learn the methods, the thinking and abilities to cope with life in university. All these abilities are common to everything in our life."

Anita describes her experience at university coming from a relatively poor family.

"Though my family was not rich, they attached great importance to education. They thought that only education could change our lives."

Both she and her cousin managed to achieve high scores in the gaokao, a national exam taken by all Chinese students who wish to undertake university study, and obtained places at a university.

"In the university we felt a little maladjusted," she said. "My classmates were almost all from the big cities, but thanks to my optimistic character I was always improving myself."

China's recent economic growth has been phenomenal, but the benefits have not been equally distributed. China's Global Times reported that 1 percent of the population controls 41.1 percent of the wealth, making China more unequal than the United States. There is nevertheless potential for better education to improve the lot of those living in the poorer western provinces.

Anita said: "Economic growth will influence the education of children, as it will bring more funds for education if the money is correctly used. Whether the new wealth reaches those areas that need it most, in my opinion, is to some degree a political issue. I sincerely hope for the further transparency of governmental affairs."

Mary adds that the distribution of resources - particularly human resources, technology and even information - is unequal and unfair.

Mei, however, notes a charitable trend in the Chinese who have benefited most from the growth.

"More and more people do want to contribute to the community after getting rich," she says.

But even if more can be done to implement reform, the problem of cultural prejudice will still remain.

"Undoubtedly," says Anita, "some families from rural areas still hold the traditional idea that 'education is useless' or 'innocence is a woman's virtue'. However, our local governments are sparing no efforts to change their short-sighted perceptions."

"In rural areas," says Mary, "being blind is seen as being useless and helpless. Parents feel ashamed to have a blind child. To send him or her to a blind school can mean spending a lot of money on transport, and some parents don't even know that there are schools for blind children."

Education will be vital to the future Chinese economy as it shifts more towards innovation and gradually removes its dependence on the manufacture of cheap goods for the West. Ensuring that everyone receive an education, including those with disabilities, is a challenge which the government must embrace if it wants to enjoy continued prosperity.