The recently relaxed one-child policy in China led many parents to abandon children who were born with mental or physical disabilities.
Photographer Alice Carfrae travelled between Beijing and Zhengzhou to visit two projects run by Bethel, a dedicated organisation that is set up to provide high-quality care, education, life skills and livelihood opportunities to blind and visually impaired children in China through foster care projects. Bethel also runs an associate programme in training and outreach called 555, which aims to prevent blindness, lower orphan rates and conduct eye screenings to identify young visually-impaired children living in the country.
Almost all of the children helped by Bethel have been abandoned by their parents, because they have a physical or mental health problems. Susan Ou, manager of Bethel’s Love is Blind project, says minor disabilities such as missing fingers can be reason enough for parents to abandon a child.
In the past decades, China’s One Child policy has exacerbated this problem as a great deal of pressure is put on the child to provide for the rest of the family, especially for their parents as they reach old age. If they are unable to work, they cannot meet this requirement or support the family, and this leads some parents to abandon their child.
There are two projects within the Love is Blind programme. The first is a partnership between Bethel and an orphanage in Zhengzhou and another orphanage in Dou Dian, outside Beijing, which includes a farm, school and home for visually impaired children.
Speech therapy is now regarded as a vital component for many of the children, and music also plays a huge part in the children’s lives, with specially designed music rooms offering stimulation and relaxation.
Early on, children are encouraged to understand the concept of their own bodies, which instils confidence and a strong sense of self. At Bethel, both the environment and the children are very well cared for, and this, in turn, helps to prevent the kind of discrimination against disabilities, which has pervaded wider Chinese society for many years.
The role of education, whatever their needs, is paramount.
n Alice's words:
Zhengzhou is not the prettiest city. Its grey buildings are shrouded by a grey choking smoke. Henan is one of China’s poorer provinces and its capital reflects this. The Zhengzhou City Children’s Welfare Institute is located on the very outskirts of the city, where land is cheaper.
Despite being newly painted, the centre still did not look especially inviting from the outside, but we were welcomed warmly by Ma Jingya, who has been working as a teacher there for two years.
When we arrived, the twelve children in Bethel’s preschool initiative were taking an after lunch nap. We took this chance to look around one of the apartments they share, including a girl’s room, a boy’s room and a separate space for babies. The apartment looked very cosy with the kitchen and living room especially feeling like family homes. The only clue to the nature of the environment is stickers with children’s names and pictures to identify chairs, cups and toothbrushes.
The first child to wake was Xuerou. As I walked over to her cot I could see her yawning and smiling to herself. I whispered hello and she squealed with delight. Susan Ou, Bethel’s manager, told me she loves being talked to and cuddled. Xuerou is a child in whom they have seen the most significant changes since her arrival, very weak and malnourished.
Xuerou’s former circumstances are not known, but at first, she couldn’t even sit up or eat solid food, nor had she ever been taught how to walk or talk. It took six months of intensive care for her to respond to food and three years before she was able to stand. Now she is six, and can walk, but remains very small for her age. Susan told me that she understands when you tell her she is beautiful and will let you brush her hair.
I also spent a day with Gui Gui, a five year old boy who came into Bethel’s care at 18 months, after being abandoned by his parents. Gui Gui was expecting us but was feeling too shy to say hello. However, his shyness dissipated as soon as his Braille class started. The teacher, who is also blind, formed the children into a group to act out the Braille dots. Gui Gui was particularly quick and bossy, shouting out answers and physically putting the others in the correct place.
Gui Gui has transformed over the years, staff told me, from a terrified little boy who couldn’t walk or talk into the smiling bundle of energy I see today, who jumps downstairs in his haste to get to lunch. It wasn’t long before he was taking my hand and guiding me round his home.
He took particular interest in my camera, feeling his way around the buttons and the shutter. He would shout for his friends and the teacher and when he located them he would point the camera in their direction and push the shutter button in rapid succession as though firing a gun.
Gui Gui showed me one of his favorite places, the music room. He can play many instruments including the piano, which he asked me to play with him. When he realized I am not musical, he sat himself on my lap, took my hands in his and guided my fingers to the right keys to help me play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star — which is exactly what he is.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA
Text by Legatum Foundation
Alice Carfrae is an English documentary photographer currently based in Beijing, China. She works for clients such as The Telegraph magazine, Ford Foundation, Legatum, The Welsh Ruby Union, the Youth Justice Board, and Billionaire.com.