Disabled children and young people in China are forced out of the country's highly competitive education system at an early age and face a lifetime of poverty as a result, according to a New York-based rights group.
"Mainstream schools deny many such children admission, ask them to leave, or fail to provide appropriate classroom accommodations to help them overcome barriers related to their disabilities," Human Rights Watch said in a new report on disability rights in education.
"Children with more serious disabilities are excluded from the mainstream education system, and a significant number of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch receive no education at all," the group said in a summary of the report published on its website.
The grim situation for Chinese children with disabilities runs in stark contrast to growing international recognition of the right to education regardless of status.
According to the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which was ratified by China's ruling Communist Party in 2008, governments must "ensure an inclusive education system at all levels."
Parallel education system
Beijing has actively developed a parallel system of segregated special education schools, rather than investing in inclusive education in the mainstream school system, HRW said.
"The Chinese government’s current policies and practices raise questions about the extent of its commitment [to inclusive education]," it said.
Official figures show just how far there is to go.
China has a population of 8.3 million who are registered as having some form of disability. More than 40 percent of them are illiterate.
A Shandong-based rights activist surnamed Lan said that places at China's few special schools for the blind were extremely limited.
"There aren't any schools for them, so they are just a burden on their families, and suffer social discrimination," Lan said.
"You have to learn some kind of skill if you want to move out of the darkness and into the light."
Access to university entrance exam
The HRW report comes amid growing pressure on the government over blind people's access to China's university entrance exam, after activists submitted a freedom-of-information request to the education ministry, calling on the government to reveal how many blind students had sat the university entrance exam since 2008.
The move sparked widespread debate online about education for China's visually impaired population of around 17 million, who are served by just 1,500 specialist school places and have access to just three out of China's 2,000 universities, while the government sent around 17,000 blind people to train as massage therapists in 2012.
Jilin-based teenager Dong Lina, who was blinded by a childhood illness, said she was desperate to advance her education beyond vocational massage training courses aimed at finding reliable work for blind people.
"I can't just spend the rest of my life like this," she told local media. "The thing I fear is that my life today will be exactly like it was yesterday."
A Jilin-based ophthalmologist surnamed Li said legislation is already in place to protect the rights of people with disabilities in China, but that implementation has yet to become a reality.
"The main obstacle right now for the blind is a lack of equipment to allow them to take public examinations," Li said.
"They need special access, special tables and chairs, and specially designed equipment. All of these things cost a lot of money."
Li said that the cost of producing braille textbooks was also high, and the availability very low.
"China hasn't got there yet," he said.
Discrimination in school
HRW said schools would sometimes refuse outright to accept disabled students, but mostly would encourage them to leave, or impose conditions on their attendance, such as being accompanied every day by a caregiver from home.
"The mainstream education system is set up in such a way that the teacher’s focus is on students without disabilities; it is the child with a disability who is expected to adapt to the system," the group said.
The report concludes that Chinese children with disabilities rarely stay in school beyond junior middle school.
Many are discriminated against during selection processes for college and university, which include tests of medical "fitness," it said.
Different for the privileged
Disabled rights activist Hu Jun said that while the disabled children of high-ranking government and Party officials were likely to be well-educated, the picture is much bleaker for the less privileged in Chinese society.
"Chinese policy is that disabled people are very badly treated unless they come from a powerful family," Hu said. "Their fates aren't all the same."
He said many businesses in China were still failing to provide adequate access for disabled people.
"For example, the Industrial Commercial Bank's access ramps are just there for show, but they're not used," he said.
"Outside of Beijing, disabled people have no way to get into a lot of shops and public places if they are in a wheelchair."
Henan-based AIDS activist Chang Kun, who has campaigned for the rights of AIDS orphans infected before birth by contaminated transfusions, said HIV-positive children still had a hard time battling discrimination.
But he said he was optimistic that continued campaigning would yield results.
"It doesn't matter whether it's a disabled person, or a child who is HIV-positive, things improve when there's enough recognition in society, and when a group of people starts pushing for it," Chang said.
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.