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Program helps mentally disabled get jobs

By Yang Yao  (China Daily)

09:37, May 06, 2013

Li Chao, a noodle cook at a small restaurant in Beijing's Fengtai district, has a simple job. He slices beef brisket, boils it with noodles, adds vegetables and spices and serves it in a bowl.

Many people could learn to do it within a few weeks, but it took Li years.

Li, 27, has learning difficulties - his IQ is lower than 70, equal to a 7-year-old's. No school or training institution would accept him after he finished elementary school.

He stayed at home for years. But seven years ago, his life started to change when his community committee introduced him to Beijing Fengtai Lizhi Rehabilitation Center, then the only NGO in China dedicated to training people with mental disabilities and providing employment services.

Through vocational training there, Li has transformed from an adult cut off from society to a self-sufficient man.

"I want to make money, get a wife and have a family," he said slowly but confidently.

Millions of people in China like Li have not been so fortunate. The number of institutions that help people with learning disabilities find work is very small.

Seven years after the Beijing Fengtai Lizhi Rehabilitation Center pioneered the "supported employment" in China, the service is not new. But so far only about 10 NGOs provide the service in major cities, concentrating on Beijing, Nanjing, Tianjin, Jinan and Zhengzhou.

The reasons for the difficulty in promoting the service vary.

One big factor is prejudice against people with learning disabilities, said Zhou Haibin of the International Labour Organization.

"People picture mentally disabled people staying at home living on limited allowances, instead of going out and competing with people who are not disabled," he said. "But motivated and diligent workers with mental disabilities are wasted in a community if they are denied job opportunities."

China has more than 5 million people with mental disabilities, according to the International Labour Organization. Of them, about 65 percent are only mildly disabled, are capable of working and are of working age. Those 2.66 million mentally disabled people could earn a living and reduce family burdens by working.

Another misconception is that they do not perform well and require extra supervision, according to Song Song, a researcher at Enable Disability Studies Institute.

However, a study by the center which was authored by Song found that 90 percent of people with disabilities rated the same or better in job performance as non-disabled co-workers.

According to Song, the mentally disabled can offer something many other people don't have - they're able to manage a difficult life. They could not get by in everyday life without developing excellent problem-solving skills, which makes them an asset.

"With the right support, and the right education on both sides, it's an easy transition and then you have a very dedicated, ready-to-work employee," he said.

Helping the disabled turn their disadvantages into advantages is exactly what NGOs such as Beijing Fengtai Lizhi Rehabilitation Center are doing. By providing tailored training in social skills, literacy and math, handicrafts, cooking, domestic service, typing, hospitality management, plant maintenance and other areas they are making the disabled employable.

Li, who is shy and speaks and counts slowly, is stubborn. He sticks to his job and works harder than other people, said Zhang Yuming, Li's boss.

Since beginning the special vocational training in 2006, the center has recruited more than 600 students, but only 70 trainees have secured employment. The other students can still stay until they find work.

"Running a project like this takes a lot of money," said Feng Lu, head of the center. "It's hard for NGOs like us to survive. And maybe that's why there are so few organizations doing this."

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