Shared Support: Self Made Infrastructure for Disabled Workers

sharedsupport-02The world—big, awe-inspiring, dangerous and uncertain—has hosted everything that’s ever happened within human history. There is nothing that is possible that can’t be done here, though there are plenty of steps to be taken as humanity learns its limitations and surpasses possibilities.

Those words of inspiration, easily written, can, with pessimistic values, be a slap in the face for some. Another patronizing look from the overtly able. Among Dongguan’s citizens, those born with a disability or sickened to a point that there bodily health becomes a hurdle in the way of survival, it would be easy to assume that viewpoint – stuck at the back of the massing lines. For many of them, however, they’ve faced adversity by uniting and addressing the difficulties among themselves.

There is an obvious growth in public appreciation and government funds,but there is still only so much that can be done from a center point.

As it stands, the official stance on the issue of helping the nation’s most vulnerable is complicated, as it is everywhere. The issue is so complicated that presently the Americans can’t even ratify a U.N. treaty, which, oddly enough, is an international agreement based primarily on the American’s with Disability Act.

China did.

The country is ready to move forward, but there are budget issues, infrastructures needed, healthcare training and competing politics. In the eyes of those invested in the uplifting of China’s handicapped citizens, and those of the authorities in charge of administrating their welfare, the issue is simplified by categorizing people with disabilities into five groups. According to King Kong, vice president of Dongguan’s Physically Disabled Peoples Association and the owner of a successful chain of phone stores, that list is comprised of the blind, mute and deaf, mentally handicapped, the physically disabled and people with cerebral palsy.

Once again showcasing Dongguan as a forerunner to national issues, and placing them in international media, the city has been recognized as the centerpiece for artistic endeavors in a film festival traveling through the U.S. called ReelAbilities. The event, which spent a week during January in Boston, shared independent films focusing on the problems facing the handicapped. One of those films, Son of Stars, tells the story of ZhengZheng as she arrives in Dongguan and struggles for a complete life with a young autistic son. The film is set just after China’s “Opening” and shares the solitude and animosity endured while living with a disability at the time.

Executive Vice President Wang Canji of the Dongguan Handicapped Entrepreneurs Association motivates employees during a team-building exercise.

Executive Vice President Wang Canji of the Dongguan Handicapped Entrepreneurs Association motivates employees during a team-building exercise.

The stories of living with a disability in China have improved. There is an obvious growth in public appreciation and government funds, but there is still only so much that can be done from a center point without the feet on the ground to fully comprehend the intricacies of the challenges faced.

“In earlier examples, they matched jobs rashly, and lacking a personal approach. It didn’t work well,” said Kong. So a coupling of folk and government associations have stepped in, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the five categories to arrange what they believe will be suitable jobs.

The solution, they find, is to let them do for themselves. Diverting funds that would in the past be “digested” by official organizations and shifting them to training programs. “The federation will do the opposite. They start with the individual and help them build up their own business.”

The Dongguan Disabled Persons’ Federation, of which he speaks, is a Public Institution of the Dongguan government, but they can’t do it all on their own. Luckily they don’t have to.

The Handicapped Entrepreneurs Association is a local NGO working under the guidance of the federation, but founded, and mostly funded, by handicapped entrepreneurs who are motivated to help and have the perspective to know where that help is needed.

“The original purpose of setting up this association was gathering resources from society, like successful companies, to help handicapped people get and eventually create jobs, including skills training,” said the association’s vice president of public relations Ye Mingmin. “We’ve been helping people with disabilities, such as the children in recovery or poor disabled families.”

From their office in Dongcheng, association executives volunteer part of their free time each week in three departments – finance, public relations and training. Some of these business leaders are serious players in Dongguan. Founded in 2010 with 30 members – all handicapped, all entrepreneurs – the association has been captained by a president that, according to Ye, also leads a company that pays the third most taxes in Chashan Town.

In the four years of its existence, the first couple were slow in growth, and the challenges aren’t over, but that hasn’t stopped them from dreaming big. “We are understaffed. It will be hard to realize the plans and activities we want to do this year,” said Ye.

The name of his game is publicity. This spring Ye’s department wants to raise awareness of the problems facing the handicapped, the services provided by the association and those they plan to develop in the future. To do so, they will invite able bodied participants to join in with their members and trainees on community events like a wheelchair marathon, a Qifeng Mountain climb and a group wedding. “We want to pass the positive energy from those with disabilities on to the society,” said Ye.

Fishing 101

Using funds to aid in daily matters or raise awareness, a new focus, are not the association’s primary function. The funds, mostly donated by members and their close network, are used to help novices help themselves. First, much of their work is done in counseling clients, then finding them work.

Many families won’t tell other people they have a disabled member,”Kong said of his experience managing a program that
trains clients in mobile device maintenance.

“One of the difficult problems is to convince them to join in our program,” said King Kong. Many times they want to do it, but their family has a problem. So we need to call every one of their family members to convince them.” This may seem counterintuitive, that family members would need so much convincing to bless the entrance into a program that could set their loved ones on the path to independence. But then again, not all people are the same.

“Many families won’t tell other people that they have a disabled member,” Kong said of his experience managing a program that trains clients in mobile device maintenance. “Others, when they want to go out or take a walk, the parents worry they need to accompany them like nannies, so under overbearing protection, gradually they lose the ability to live alone, to create value, and the motivation to learn new skills.”

The psychology behind becoming successful with a handicap and living in a place with underdeveloped infrastructure is understandably daunting. A fact that Kong knows all too well. Growing up in Shatian Town during its poorer farming days, Kong was an industrious, confident youth catching fish and shrimp from the river to pay for his own education. Feeding his family and making pocket money for him and his sister sired in him a sense of accomplishment, and he felt it in every kuai note over and over for each earned.
At 19, already a strong young man building a popular reputation as a leader in his family and among the villagers, he had graduated from pulling the fish out of the river to an apprenticeship with a fish dealer. Waking at 3 in the morning, collecting the early catches along the G107 highway from Humen, and selling them in Guangzhou, Kong was learning skills and working his path.

Attending the 2014 Dongguan Futsal Club opening day tournament, team president King Kong (right) poses next to team manager Mateus Martins.

Attending the 2014 Dongguan Futsal Club opening day tournament, team president King Kong (right) poses next to team manager Mateus Martins.

A path that almost came to an abrupt end one afternoon when his boss, tired from the long day’s journey, fell asleep at the wheel and headed into oncoming traffic. After two hours waiting on the side of the road, 30 minutes in the waiting room as doctors mistakenly tended the less injured­­—but more bewailed—driver, and a seven day coma, Kong woke to a life he felt would never be the same.

He spent three years in rehabilitation, working mostly he says on his psychological recovery. It is a process that continues. “Every time I tell the story, I want to tell it in a third person’s view. But every time I can’t help but to remember all the pain.”

The psychology behind becoming successful with a handicap and living in a place with underdeveloped infrastructure is understandably daunting.
A fact that Kong knows all too well.

For six months Kong remained at home in his room with windows and curtains shut, refusing visitors because he felt inferior. “Only at night I crawled out of my house, stared at the sky and thought ‘why me? It’s unfair,’” he said. Then, the resilient, self-reliant young man that once paid his own school tuition resurfaced. He was fitted with a prosthetic limb and went through a list of physical activities—swimming, cycling, running and daily rituals—in a process of finding his way. “After trying everything, I know what I can and can’t do, it took me four years to figure it out,” he said.

By the end of his initial struggles, Kong had rediscovered his innate confidence and began putting it to use selling counterfeit CDs in Guangzhou, which led to a sales job pushing computers, and eventually to his own chain of technology stores where, since 2012, he has been running the program that imparts skills to people with disabilities aiding them in the search for their own path to success and livelihood.

The skill takes two years to master, due to constantly upgrading technology, but Kong says, “For the ones who have enough confidence, they can open their own repair shop in their house or in their neighborhood.” But in China, where networking is key, there is always a system of support among the handicapped community of Dongguan. “If they run into problems, they can always mail the phone to us. We will fix it for them and mail it back.”

sharedsupport-05Family that Stands Together

In any part of the world there are advantages for knowing people, and, just as likely, there will be disadvantages in finding gainful employment with an impairment. Able bodied seekers of employment give up every day after disheartening ratios of rejection rise to high. It is a matter of losing faith, being disenfranchised and feeling that they have nothing to gain from being a part of the system.

But this attitude seems not to be the norm among Dongguan’s handicapped. They have that stereotypical can-do attitude. The kind of thought process that sees a car that won’t go, and asks, “why not?” instead of screaming at the tires in vain.

When I touched his arm,he threw my hand away,” he said, until Kong revealed what lay behind his pants leg.

And so when Zhong Weigen, who lost his leg at 6-years-old in a bus accident while on an outing with his mother and brother, ran into inflation and depressed business at a hardware factory in 1997, he used the extra time to invent a way to hit the gas, literally.

Business waned, and Zhong, wanting to remain valuable to the company, applied and was denied a job driving the factory car. But Zhong was mechanically inclined and looked for a solution.

“It was a cup of tea for me,” he said. He went to work creating a device that would allow him to brake and accelerate with a hand rod. “I drew the draft myself, every part I had to make myself. I installed it and tested it before handing the design to the factory for fabrication.”

One might think that after inventing a device as effective as Zhong’s was, that it would equal a new direction working to create a brand and make a minted living from the proceeds. It wasn’t until last year, though, that, with the prodding of a few friends, he applied for and received a patent. “If many people copy it, many people make it and more minds make it better,” he said.

During a Shanghai tourist outing, Zhong Weigen (center left) poses with 2008 Beijing Olympic pistol gold medalist Ni Hedong (left).

During a Shanghai tourist outing, Zhong Weigen (center left) poses with 2008 Beijing Olympic pistol gold medalist Ni Hedong (left).

When you have a group together that suffers the same disadvantage, those heads come together to solve their problems as a community. And with the customs in China being what they are, practicality comes first. It was an incentive that sent Kong to the Dongguan Disabled Persons Federation in search of employees that wouldn’t leave immediately at the completion of training. “I was thinking, because the handicapped don’t have many opportunities, if I can train them, they might be more loyal to our store,” said Kong.

What he found, was that the relation spawned his motivation to get more involved. He discovered he could share the self-respect that he had earned through his hard work and success with others. “When they are in the disabled founded companies, they found common points,” he said. They were more likely to succeed.

He says it is a matter of trust and inspiration, like the time he offered assistance to a man who had fallen and was struggling in a crowd of able bodied onlookers. “When I touched his arm, he threw my hand away,” he said, until Kong revealed what lay behind his pants leg.

Within this community of can-do ladies and gentlemen, the success stories are growing. Whether it is a convenience store, lock and key stall, computer repair, or nurturing a talent in the arts, with the assistance of folk societies like the entrepreneur’s association and the Physically Disabled Persons’ Association, or government agencies like the Dongguan Disabled Persons’ Federation, the formula is clear—those that can, will.

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